Join our Mailing List

"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

China's 'Grandpa Wen' Spins a Disaster into a PR Coup

May 16, 2008

By Wieland Wagner in Shanghai
Spiegel (Germany)
May 14, 2008

In the aftermath of China's devastating earthquake, Prime Minsister
Wen Jiabao is running around the earthquake zone like a fireman,
introducing himself as "Grandpa." The Communist Party is seeking a PR
coup that will help end China's international isolation over Tibet.

The prime minister shouts into the megaphone, he comforts weeping
earthquake victims, he desperately sends off rescue squads to search
for each and every survivor. China's TV viewers are currently
experiencing, with unusual openness, how their prime minister, Wen
Jiabao, is attempting to tackle the consequences of Monday's
devastating earthquake.

The dramatic TV pictures come precisely from the very region that
caused a worldwide sensation just two months ago: It was here, in the
west of China, that the protests of the Tibetan minority broke out.
At that time, the world saw another China. Beijing put down the
protests with an iron fist and blocked Western reporters from
entering the crisis area.

The Olympic host showed the world that it is a dictatorship, which --
despite all the protests -- stage-managed the Olympic torch relay as
a demonstration of its power. It also showed itself to be an aspiring
superpower, which -- at least initially -- encouraged nationalist
hatred against Western media and companies among its own people and
provoked a boycott of the French supermarket chain Carrefour.

But the shrill tone, the mutual insults, the growing misunderstanding
between China and other countries all seem suddenly forgotten. China
is mourning the victims of the earthquake, and the world mourns with China.

Ironically, amid disaster a small seed of hope is growing. It appears
that the Chinese leadership is willing to take advantage of the
catastrophe -- not only to show more openness for the benefit of the
domestic audience, but also to liberate China from its isolation in
time for the Olympics.

Reconciliation has even been announced on state television, where
nothing is ever said by chance. The TV announcers singled out
Carrefour's offer of help for particular praise. The supermarket
chain was reported to have offered money and tents to the victims.

Even the Olympic flame, which Beijing has symbolically paraded
through the crisis region of Tibet -- right up to the summit of Mount
Everest -- will now be carried through the country a bit less
ostentatiously, out of respect for the victims.

China is certainly making full use of the earthquake in order to
unite the nation behind the party with the usual political slogans.
However, in contrast to previous disasters, such as the SARS
epidemic, this time the communist leadership is displaying an unusual
political sensitivity.

Perhaps they really have learned from their mistakes. In this Olympic
year, the state and party have had more than enough opportunities to
test their crisis management skills. First of all, a snow storm
paralyzed large swathes of southeastern China, then the Tibetans
protested and a train recently crashed in the Shandong province,
killing 72 people and leaving 416 injured.

And now the earthquake. It is unlikely to have much of an impact on
China's economic growth. After all, the earthquake region is in the
relatively underdeveloped western part of the country. However, the
massive destruction has hit China at a time when a plethora of other
problems are threatening stability: record inflation, stock market
losses, and the subprime crisis in the United States, China's most
important export market.

The communist regime, which has based its power on double-digit
growth figures, is alarmed. The leadership lost no time in protecting
its own interests following this latest catastrophe: Prime Minister
Wen rushed to the disaster area just two hours after the earthquake.
Unlike the Burmese junta generals who kept urgent Western aid away
from their suffering people, Beijing seems to the outside world to be
behaving as a responsible great power.

In China, that's not self-evident. In these days of tragedy, Chinese
leaders will likely be remembering the catastrophic earthquake that
occurred in Tangshan in the summer of 1976 and claimed around 240,000
lives. Back then, the government of Chairman Mao played down the
disaster. Many of his subjects saw the catastrophe as a sign that the
heavens were stripping him of his power, and indeed the frail
dictator died a few weeks later.

In the time since, three decades of reforms have made China a far
more open place, and the time has long since passed when people could
easily be ordered around as they could be in the time when Mao Zedong
ran the country like a giant commune. Even in China, the powerful
must win the support of the people.

That's why Premier Wen untiringly rushes around the country, like a
firefighter hurrying to the spots where brushfires threaten to turn
into forest fires. Wen consoles housewives complaining about high
pork prices, villagers irked by the growing gap between rich and poor
or, as seen this week, desperate earthquake victims.

Indeed, one of Wen's greatest strengths is his telegenic ability to
express sympathy. He's been modestly introducing himself to
earthquake victims as "Grandpa Wen."

At the same time, Wen the indefatigable crisis manager also embodies
the fundamental structural weaknesses in China's political system.

In contrast to the West, the Chinese are unable to express their
discontent through an independent press or through democratic
elections. At the end of the day, the premier has to reach for the
megaphone and take over crisis management himself whenever there's a
particularly critical event which he obviously doesn't trust the
often corrupt province and party bosses to handle.

China, representing a quarter of humanity, has become far too complex
an entity to govern with yesterday's methods. The only way to ensure
the long-term harmony which China's leaders so often evoke is for the
country to undertake courageous political reforms that will create
greater transparency and allow China's people more say in how their
country is run.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank