From Dragon to Panda: a New China?

How disaster response softened China's image and increased press freedom.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:10 AM

BEIJING, China, June 3, 2008 — -- 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."