Page last updated at 17:33 GMT, Wednesday, 28 May 2008 18:33 UK

Quake reveals softer side to China

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao speaks to the quake survivors in Hanwang, southwest China"s Sichuan province on May 23, 2008
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has toured the quake area extensively

China's rapid response to the devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands has given its government some much-needed good publicity.

Only two months ago, it faced outside criticism - sometimes severe - for its tough response to riots and protests in Tibet and elsewhere.

But the massive government-led relief effort launched after the Sichuan earthquake has shown Chinese leaders in a different light.

It is a development that has not been missed by the government, which seems only too willing to highlight this softer side.

On the ground, China's swift reaction to the earthquake was clearly visible.

Earthquake rescue teams - using sniffer dogs and brand new equipment - appeared to have been quickly dispatched to disaster-hit areas.

The Western media this time reported our rapid response with unprecedented acknowledgement
State media
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao flew to Sichuan Province to personally oversee relief efforts just hours after the earthquake struck.

On a visit to China this week, one US official - Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer - articulated the praise expressed by many others.

A mother carries her daughter with a new donated schoolbag at a relief centre in 21 May 2008 in Deyang, Sichuan province
China recognises its global image has been improved

"This represents a model for other countries to follow," he said.

"I can think of another country, not too far away, that I wish had followed the same approach," he said, apparently referring to Burma.

Burma's government has come in for sharp international criticism for its slow response to the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.

Even human rights organisations that were China's harshest critics just a few weeks ago, have acknowledged the government's impressive earthquake response.

"The Chinese authorities have made efforts to demonstrate their respect and concern for human life," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.

'No free pass'

China recognises that its global image has been improved by its swift dispatch of men, women and materials to earthquake-hit areas.

A commentary published by the state-run news agency Xinhua acknowledged this shift in world opinion.

"Just a few weeks ago, China was fiercely attacked by those who did not have the slightest idea about the truth of the secessionist riot in Tibet," it said.

If the Chinese government was misunderstood before, it is now being given due praise, according to Xinhua's view of recent developments.

"The Western media this time reported the Chinese government's rapid response and efficient disaster relief efforts with unprecedented acknowledgement."

Map of earthquake zone

China has been quick to seize on this good publicity.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang linked China's response to the earthquake with its human rights record.

"In this earthquake you can see that the Chinese government has carried out a 'people-centred' relief effort," he said.

"This clearly shows that the Chinese government respects and protects human rights," he added at a regular press briefing on Tuesday.

But despite its improved image, China will continue to face criticism in the coming months over its human rights record, particularly in relation to Tibet.

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said there are still many rights-related problems in China.

"We are willing to say when a government does the right thing, and we said the Chinese government has done a good job," he said.

"But they do not get a free pass just because of that."

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