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Glimmer of hope shines through quake's rubble

BEIJING -- In the aftermath of the great Sichuan earthquake, we've seen a hopeful glimpse of China's future: a more open and self-confident nation, and maybe -- just maybe -- the birth of grass-roots politics here.

BEIJING -- In the aftermath of the great Sichuan earthquake, we've seen a hopeful glimpse of China's future: a more open and self-confident nation, and maybe -- just maybe -- the birth of grass-roots politics here.

In traveling around China in the days after the quake, I was struck by how the public and the news media initially seized the initiative from the government. Ordinary Chinese are traveling to the quake zone to help move rubble, and tycoons, peasants and even children are reaching into their pockets to donate to the victims.

"I gave 500 yuan," or about $72, a man told me in the western city of Urumqi. "Eighty percent of the people in my work unit made donations. Everybody wants to help."

Private Chinese donations have already raised more than $500 million. That kind of bottom-up public spirit is a mark of citizens, not subjects.

Immediately after the earthquake, the Propaganda Department instinctively banned news organizations from traveling to the disaster area. But Chinese journalists ignored the order and rushed to Chengdu -- and the order was rescinded the next day.


Initial score: Propaganda Department, 0; News Media, 1.

Since then, the authorities have managed to rein in the media again, and the Propaganda Department is ordering news organizations to report on how wonderful the relief efforts are. Many Chinese journalists are chafing instead to investigate corruption and the reasons schools collapsed when government offices didn't. The final score will depend on whether those stories are published.

China-watchers have long debated whether the country is evolving toward greater freedom and pluralism. One camp, myself included, believes it is. We see China slowly following the trajectory of South Korea, Indonesia, Mongolia and other neighboring countries away from authoritarianism. We see perestroika leading to glasnost.

Frankly, the evidence has been mixed, and the skeptics are right to note that dissidents are still more likely to end up in jail than on the news. But on balance, the earthquake gives hope to us optimists.

China may claim to be Marxist-Leninist, but it's really market-Leninist. The rise of wealth, a middle class, education and international contacts are slowly undermining one-party rule and nurturing a new kind of politics.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is hard-working and blessed with nearly a photographic memory, but he also may be the second-most boring person alive (after his boss, President Hu Jintao). Both Hu and Wen rose through the system as classic Communist apparatchiks -- Brezhnevs with Chinese faces. Yet, Wen has seen the political landscape changing and has struggled recently to reinvent himself. When the earthquake hit, Wen flew immediately to the disaster area and appeared constantly on television, overseeing rescue operations.

Heroic tidbits seeped out. Wen fell and cut himself but refused medical attention. He bellowed directions to generals over the telephone and then slammed the handset down. He shouted to children buried in a pile of rubble: "This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao. Children, you've got to hold on!"

Wen's conduct is striking because it's what we expect of politicians, not dictators. His aim was to come across as a "good emperor," not to win an election. But presumably he behaved in this way partly because he felt the hot breath of public opinion on his neck.


China now has 75 million blogs, often carrying criticisms of the government, as well as tens of thousands of citizen protests each year. China's police announced that they had punished 17 earthquake "rumor-mongers" last week, with penalties of as many as 15 days in jail. But repression isn't what it used to be, and dissidents now are often less afraid of the government than it is of them.

In the 1980s, China's hard-liners ferociously denounced "heping yanbian" -- "peaceful evolution" toward capitalism and democracy. The hard-liners worried that if citizens had a choice of clothing, of jobs, of housing, of television programs, they might also want a role in choosing national policy. The earthquake may be remembered as a milestone in that peaceful evolution. My hunch is that the Communist Party is lurching in the direction, over 10 or 20 years, of becoming a Social Democratic Party that dominates the country but that grudgingly allows opposition victories and a free press.

China today reminds me of Taiwan when I lived there in the late 1980s when the government was still trying to be dictatorial but just couldn't get away with it. It was no longer scary enough.

Kristof writes for The New York Times.

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