by Bobo Lo
An extraordinary thing happened to China the other week. Not the Sichuan earthquake, even though that was an enormous, catastrophic event. Nor even the phenomenal popular response to this tragedy. No, the most remarkable development was the recasting of the Chinese people in Western consciousness. In place of the previous image of a homogenous, often demonised, mass of humanity, there emerged a picture of the Chinese as individuals, with real feelings and vulnerabilities.
How did this happen? Certainly, human tragedy on such a vast scale invites sympathy even in the stoniest of hearts, although perhaps not in some Hollywood stars. Yet in the past the western media have assigned little importance to loss of life in the non-western world. The infamous headline ‘Boston man breaks arm, 250,000 Bangladeshis drown’ may be apocryphal, but the attitude behind it is all too common.
What makes the change in western attitudes all the more remarkable is that prior to the earthquake China was having a very bad year in PR terms. Western coverage of Beijing’s response to the Tibetan demonstrations in March was uniformly critical. The Olympic torch relay was a fiasco, in which blame shifted from violent demonstrators and inept security arrangements to Beijing’s excessive pride. More generally, China had become the scapegoat for many of the world’s ills. It was accused of hoovering up natural resources, pushing up oil prices to record levels, swamping the market with cheap (and sometimes toxic) goods, polluting the atmosphere, and supporting vicious regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. Even the Olympics were turning out to be a mixed blessing, with the promotion of a vibrant, technologically advanced nation being undermined by accusations over Tibet and human rights abuses.
The Sichuan earthquake changed everything. Suddenly, China became a victim rather than a perpetrator, the focus of worldwide sympathy instead of an object of fear and loathing. Four factors were critical to this transformation. The first was the Communist leadership’s almost instantaneous response to the crisis. Within hours, Premier Wen Jiabao was on a plane to the worst-hit areas. Within a day, some 100,000 soldiers had been mobilized. The government acted with an urgency lacking in other, more developed countries – most conspicuously the United States after Hurricane Katrina.
Second, the degree of transparency was unprecedented. National and foreign media were given maximum access to the earthquake region. They were also able to report on sensitive subjects, such as the shoddy building standards for schools that contributed to the particularly heavy death toll among the young. The Chinese government recognized from the outset that it had everything to gain from highlighting the scale of the tragedy and from allowing individual human stories to speak for themselves.
Third, the leadership revealed an unusual empathy with the victims. Wen Jiabao – ‘Grandfather Wen’ – not only reached the earthquake zone within hours, but once there acted in a way uncommon in Chinese leaders. He got his hands dirty, whether in helping to dig people out of the rubble or holding a saline drip for one of the injured. The subsequent declaration of three days of national mourning, during which all public and private entertainments were suspended, revealed a finely tuned sense of the national mood. The traditional divide between government and people – ‘the Emperor is far away’ – gave way to a genuine sense of common purpose.
Finally, the humanisation of China benefited from the country’s growing prominence in a globalised world. The Sichuan earthquake brought raw human emotion into our living rooms, proving that some things are truly universal. Who can forget the sight of rows of parents holding up pictures of their only children – the ultimate victims of China’s ‘one-child’ policy? Such images transcend even the starkest of ideological and political differences.
The question now is whether this new image of China can be sustained. What would it take for the Western commentariat to revert to type and indulge in further China-bashing – over Tibet, climate change, Darfur, lost industrial jobs, or democratisation? Probably not much at all. The humanisation of China is a fragile and perhaps transient phenomenon. A swathe of Chinese gold medals at the forthcoming Beijing Olympics could trigger a new wave of Sinophobia. But whatever happens a very different China has emerged, far from the one-dimensional economic machine and totalitarian state of Western imagination. This China is a complex and contradictory entity, but whose resilience in times of crisis speaks of a profound sense of national unity.
Bobo Lo is director of the Russia and China programmes at the Centre for European Reform.