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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

In departure, China asks for outside help

May 19, 2008

By Howard W. French and Edward Wong
The International Herald Tribune
May 16, 2008

MIANYANG, China -- With the death toll from this week's earthquake
rising rapidly, China made a sharp departure from past diplomatic
practice on Thursday, seeking disaster relief experts and heavy
equipment needed for rescue operations from neighbors it has long
shunned as rivals or renegades.

Officials asked a longtime rival, Japan, to send 60 earthquake rescue
experts, the first such team it has taken from a foreign country
during the current crisis and one of the few relief missions China
has ever accepted from abroad. They also accepted help from two
private rescue teams from Taiwan, the self-governing island with
which China has long had tense relations.

The decision to seek outside help reflects the fact that the search
for survivors of Monday's massive earthquake and the struggle to
accommodate tens of thousands of displaced people from the
mountainous region around the epicenter of the quake are too much for
China to handle all alone, even after it mobilized 130,000 army
soldiers and medics for relief work.

But the selective invitations to Japan and Taiwan ? some foreign
nations that have offered aid have so far been told that their
services are not needed ? may also show that Beijing sees disaster
relief as a tactical tool to improve ties with neighbors and soften
its international image ahead of the Olympic Games in August.

China is still struggling to provide humanitarian aid to tens of
thousands of homeless people even as it tries to ramp up
search-and-rescue efforts for 40,000 buried or missing people
scattered across remote villages in the serpentine valleys of Sichuan Province.

Officials estimated Thursday that the death toll, now at nearly
20,000, could rise to 50,000. Doctors say those who are alive but
still buried cannot survive much longer, yet many of the troops
involved in rescue efforts appear to have little training in disaster
relief and lack proper tools and equipment.

On Thursday, in the devastated county seat of Beichuan, thousands of
People's Liberation Army soldiers stood around with little to do.
Some languidly picked at the rubble with their hands, unequipped with
power tools to drill or saw through debris.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who is being portrayed in the Chinese
media as exercising minute-to-minute supervision of the relief
effort, sent 100 more helicopters to ferry supplies and rescue
workers into areas inaccessible by road.

Wen also issued a detailed request for heavy equipment needed to
clear mountain roads. The request included thousands of pieces of
earth-moving equipment, mechanized hammers, shovels and cranes, as
well as satellite communications technology. A foreign ministry
spokesman said Thursday that China so far had received pledges of
$100 million in international disaster aid and $10 million in relief materials.

The two Taiwanese groups invited to participate rescue operations are
both Buddhist organizations without official government ties, and one
of them, Tzu Chi, has been granted permission for two relief flights
directly into Chengdu, the capital of earthquake stricken Sichuan
Province. Because of their long history of political rivalry and
tension, China and Taiwan do not have regular direct air connections.

One Chinese relief official called the invitations to a relatively
small number of overseas teams "rescue diplomacy." China has been
eager to secure international good will in what has so far been a
trying diplomatic year for the country, with crises involving Tibet,
human rights, and pressure to reduce support for the Sudanese government.

Both Japan and Taiwan have extensive experience with earthquakes.
Japan in particular lies along a active fault and suffered a major
quake in Kobe in 1995.

But improving relations with Japan and Taiwan are also high
priorities. Chinese President Hu Jintao just completed a visit to
Tokyo, the first by a Chinese leader in a decade, which some analysts
expect could speed a thaw in sometimes hostile political ties between
the Pacific powers.

In Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist Party leader, became
president in March, replacing the independence-leaning government of
Chen Shui-bian and vowing to improve cross-Strait ties. China appears
eager to show that he can succeed.

"This is of course very meaningful politically," said a Chinese
relief official in Shanghai, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"It means we're opening up and merging with international society,
including the area of rescue efforts. The biggest news is that
Japanese are allowed into China. We've entered the big family of
rescue efforts now."

Whatever the diplomatic goals, Sichuan needs foreign help. The
earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.9, devastated entire counties,
destroying an estimated four million homes, rendering roads
impassible and leaving as many as 10 million people dependent on relief aid.

One of them is Yang Jinquan, an 86-year-old who had to hobble over
bodies of her neighbors to descend from the mountains and save her
life. She ended up in a sports stadium in Mianyang, sleeping on a
treadmill and sharing toilets with more than 10,000 other people left homeless.

"There are just so many people here," said her granddaughter, Liu
Ying, 24, one of 12 family members sharing a few dozen square feet of
floor space. "What can anyone do?"

Hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, some crowded into
camps like the Nine Continents Stadium where Yang lives, others
sleeping in muddy fields high in the mountains. Food and water are
becoming ever scarcer, and medical experts warn of outbreaks of
influenza, diarrhea and other diseases.

"Now the main job is to restore the cities and control the spread of
infectious diseases and ensure people's health," said Yang
Changjiang, 62, a doctor volunteering at the stadium who had spent 40
days in 1976 treating victims of the Tangshan earthquake, where
240,000 people died.

In Gongxing, a farming town in the plains below a mountain range, the
earthquake left many of the hand-built houses as piles of rubble
surrounded by rice paddies. "People have been coming by and bringing
instant noodles, but we only got one cup of noodles per person," said
one woman, Zhou Daihui. An elderly woman standing in the crowd and
holding an empty straw basket suddenly fell backward, nearly
fainting. "I was buried, but I was pulled out," she said. "Now I
don't have any food."

Farther to the west, by a river running past Wandeng village, local
teenagers handed out water and snacks as survivors walked down from
ruined towns deeper in the mountains. People from elsewhere had made
a donation of a few dozen boxes of crackers, cookies and bread, but
more was clearly needed.

"We need bread and water," said one young man handing out food.
"Please also tell people that we need medicine. There are too many
people up in the mountains that are injured."

Besides a lack of food, earthquakes also often result in a shortage
of medical care, sanitation, clean water and shelter because so much
infrastructure, including hospitals, is often destroyed, said
Marie-Noëlle Rodrigue, head of emergency operations for Doctors
Without Borders. Teams of doctors from that organization are now
assessing the medical conditions in Mianzhu, an especially hard hit area.

Rodrigue said it was unclear whether China would be able to meet the
needs of victims trapped in mountain areas. "But they have been quick
and they have been strong, and they have mobilized their army," she said.
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