A nation reveals its human face to the world

The devastation of last month’s Sichuan earthquake has been terrible to witness, as 70,000 dead have been recovered and the toll still rising. With flooding in the area only now abated, it’s going to take years for the Chinese province to recover from the disaster.

But this is more than a regional tragedy. The entire country has been in mourning. Media were preempted between May 19 and 21, with all entertainment canceled and CCTV airing only disaster coverage, which cost the state broadcaster an estimated 90 million yuan ($13 million).

Front pages of Chinese newspapers were printed only in black and white, and this was carried through to the Internet, as the government pushed home the message of mourning.

But the tragedy also has touched the entire globe. If there is any upside to be gleaned from the debris of Sichuan, it is the fact that it revealed a kinder side to China and showed its human face to the world.

The quake has shown that China is able and willing to deal with foreigners, particularly if they are Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) bearing shipments of tents and other relief supplies.

It’s also shown a greater openness when it comes to reporting major news events and a fundamental willingness to cooperate with international agencies. The media, both foreign and domestic, has been given a relatively free hand to report on the quake.

The government’s reaction is a sharp contrast with Myanmar, which has largely banned foreigners who tried to help after the recent horrific cyclone there.

By showing another side to the Chinese government, the Sichuan earthquake has provided a much-needed boost to China’s image after months of protest in the West. Western media were very negative over Beijing’s handling of the Tibetan riots in March and butted heads with the government, which vilified foreign outlets such as CNN over depiction of what the Chinese firmly believe were illegal riots against the Han Chinese in Tibet.

Within the country, the earthquake has played a role similar to the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. People are feeling dazed, mournful — but united in their grief. At times, to watch the news and talk to people in the quake zone, it feels like China is under attack, even though the tremor was a natural phenomenon.

However, there are inevitably questions about how long this good will in China will last, particularly in terms of foreign sharing and media openness. China does not have a free media, and in the weeks since the quake it’s getting harder to get around the earthquake zone without a reporter’s pass, even with an official press pass that is supposed to get you access to all areas.

I was refused entry to the area where grieving parents were staging a protest around a school in Dujiangyan, where shoddy building work was blamed for the school collapsing while other nearby buildings remain intact. A week earlier, I had walked around the area freely.

Some analysts believe the openness was merely the Communist Party showing that it was now confident enough in its hold on the media to turn it on and off at will.

Even if old restrictions are reimposed and the hard line on the media continues, the precedent of openness has been established.

That offers a glimmer of hope to foreign players — including Hollywood — trying to make inroads into China. The majors have long raged at the quota system that restricts imported pics to 20 revenue-shares a year, while exhibitors such as Warners have been angry at the way they were almost forced out once their expertise had been successfully tapped in building multiplexes.

It won’t be easy. The Olympic torch protests in the West have crystallized the suspicions many Chinese hold of foreigners.

A few days after the quake, someone posted signs on a McDonald’s storefront in Nanchong, a city in Sichuan province, saying the burger chain and other foreign firms were making lots of money in China but contributing too little to relief efforts. They also attacked Coca-Cola, KFC and Nokia online.

McDonald’s had to deal with protests that its focus on “happy” in much of its advertising and product offerings was not in line with the somber mood of the country.

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