Are Chinese Leaders Opening Up?

What does response to the earthquake in Sichuan province and other newsworthy events tell us about the direction of China's political leadership? Jeff Wasserstrom, a professor at the University of California Irvine, says China is trying to seize a chance to present a more open face to its people and the world.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The people monitoring China's new openness include Jeff Wasserstrom. We found him at the University of California, Irvine, where he teaches Chinese history.

Is this government being more open because it has to be?

Professor JEFFREY WASSERSTROM (University of California, Irvine): In part. I think it's a government that now cares a great deal about public opinion, which it tries to manipulate but isn't always successful. And it doesn't always bend to public opinion, but when possible it wants to do things that will keep it in the public's positive graces.

And it certainly takes public opinion domestically more seriously than it does international opinion. There was a lot of international clamoring for a change in the torch relay, various kinds of things...

INSKEEP: The Olympic torch, yeah.

Prof. WASSERSTROM: ...and the government stuck to its guns. The Olympic torch relay.

But right after the earthquake, when celebratory images of the torch run were still being shown on state TV, there was some outrage expressed on the Internet that this was totally inappropriate at a time when people were suffering so much in Sichuan Province, where the earthquake was based. And the government quite quickly changed its tack and started introducing a moment of mourning in the torch relay events, and then there were still calls, in some cases, on the Internet for the government to do more.

INSKEEP: Could this government have looked at the disastrous political effects of something like Hurricane Katrina in the United States and essentially said whatever goes wrong here, we want to make sure it doesn't stick to us?

Prof. WASSERSTROM: In some ways. I think one useful way to think of the Chinese government now is it's not one that needs to stand for re-election. But sometimes it behaves very much like one that had to stand for re-election. It won't give up power if things spin against it, but it does want to prevent that kind of fallout.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey Wasserstrom teaches Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. Thanks very much.

Prof. WASSERSTROM: Oh, thank you. It's been a pleasure to be here.

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