For China, 2008 is supposed to be the best year ever. Eight is a fortuitous number that symbolizes fortune and luck, according to Chinese traditions, but thus far, the Year of the Rat has been anything but lucky.
Beginning with a devastating blizzard, hundreds of thousands of travelers were left stranded at train stations during the Chinese New Year holiday in January.
Weeks later, uprisings in Tibet exploded onto the world stage, igniting protests that overflowed into the international Olympic torch relay.
Just as China was getting back on its feet, disaster struck again when two trains collided on a major route in Shandong Province, killing over 70 people.
Then, on May 12, the Sichuan earthquake killed more than 70,000 people, many of them children.
Amid the overwhelming devastation, a point of light has emerged from the earthquake rubble. Because of the central government's actions in Sichuan, the rest of the world is beginning to see China less as a threatening dragon and more as a strong but compassionate panda.
When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao picked up his megaphone and consoled the victims of the earthquake, he was heard around the world. Fondly nicknamed "Grandpa Wen," his tearful hugs and extended post-earthquake presence in Sichuan Province was a marked departure from the government's sometimes bunker-mentality approach to disasters.
From immediately dispatching earthquake response teams to allowing foreign journalists to freely report in Sichuan, the central government's relief strategy has helped assuage many of the fears and protests that plagued the Olympic torch relay.
Cognizant that the world was watching, the Chinese response has been markedly more transparent and open than ever before.
'The Whole World Stands Behind China'
Even traditional foes such as Japan and Taiwan, among other friendlier countries, immediately offered help. And China surprised the world by gracefully accepting foreign offers of medical assistance and donations.
The head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, Chen Yunlin, expressed China's appreciation to the Taiwanese people for their help with earthquake relief efforts. He said that Taiwanese generosity demonstrated that "blood is thicker than water … the brotherly affection has set up a new bridge over the Taiwan Straits."
In addition to accepting donations, the government mobilized its resources and made humble requests for tents, clean water and volunteers. The organized fundraising and blood donation efforts projected a mix of national solidarity and compassion rarely felt in China, and never on the national level.
China's attitude today stands in stark contrast to her past. The last time a comparable earthquake shook China, killing over 240,000 in the city of Tangshan in 1976, the government refused humanitarian aid from the United Nations.
In 2008, the central government immediately accepted U.N. assistance.
"Not only is the support and assistance from the international community a form of material aid to China's relief work, it is also a form of spiritual encouragement," said Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing.
During a visit last week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared in Sichuan, "If we work hard, we can overcome this." With Wen at his side, Ban said, "The whole world stands behind you and supports you."
New Freedom of the Press
After the Sichuan earthquake, audiences in China and abroad read and watched news reports that looked remarkably similar. For the first time ever, China seemed to have lifted the opaque curtain and granted journalists — foreign and domestic alike — an all-access pass to the disaster zones.
"A number of foreign correspondents have expressed appreciation for the access they have had to the disaster area, and to timely information about the calamity," said Foreign Correspondent Club of China President Melinda Liu in a statement. "This is a positive development, considering the challenging circumstances."
What It Means
It is impossible to say if China's newly softened image will last, and for how long.
In the best interests of the Chinese government, the perception of China as a panda-like state would be helpful during a potentially controversial Olympic Games.
China's present openness and humility is promising. But as stories of the earthquake fade from the headlines as they inevitably will, the world's sympathy and charity towards China will wane.
Worries over a rising China will certainly resurface and take back the headlines. But as the world adjusts and reacts to China's rise, perhaps it will remember Grandpa Wen or the sudden surge in press freedom and reconsider its view of China.