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Quake Aid Marks Turning Point for Chinese Society

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Quake Aid Marks Turning Point for Chinese Society

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Quake Aid Marks Turning Point for Chinese Society

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. China is still experiencing the political aftershocks of last month's earthquake that's left 96,000 people dead or missing. There's been a groundswell of public support for the government, at least in part because it relaxed restrictions on the media and permitted non-governmental organizations to help in the relief effort.

Still, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, some believe this new government openness was not intentional.

LOUISA LIM: It's an ordinary weeknight and a charity auction is under way in prosperous Shanghai. Members of a rock-climbing club are donating their possessions to raise money for earthquake victims on the other side of the country.

Mr. KLIMA LOA THAI(ph): (Foreign language spoken) iPod.

LIM: I'm donating the iPod I've been listening to for more than four years, says Klima Loa Thai. The country is rallying around the quake victims and he wants to be part of that movement.

Mr. THAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I think this national cohesion is unprecedented, he says. Eighty thousand volunteers have headed to the quake zone, he adds.

Another lot is sold at the auction as Dr. Yu Liu(ph) inspects a tea set she'll bid on. She's also volunteered to go the quake area with her doctor husband. She has nothing but praise for the government.

Dr. YU LIU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Everybody believes the government devoted a lot of effort and care to the Sichuan earthquake victims, she says. Everybody believes in the government.

As a trainer gives advice to a novice scaling the climbing wall, Jian Su Jang(ph) watches. A journalist on a sports paper, he was paid by his employers to join a team of civilian climbers helping the rescue effort. The climbers knew the area. So working with the soldiers, they were able to rescue about 200 people trapped by landslides in their villages.

This type of public participation has been widespread, with many non-governmental organizations managing their own operations to help the earthquake victims. Jian Su Jang says the media played a vital role.

Mr. JIAN SU JANG (Journalist): (Through translator) The scale of the disaster is huge and the media reported on it so quickly and so fully. Everybody understood what was happening in the disaster zone, so that roused everybody's concern and made everybody mobilize to help out.

Premier WEN JIABAO (China): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Premier Wen Jiabao arrived at the disaster zone within hours of the earthquake. In television footage, he's shown standing on the rubble addressing rescue workers and soldiers. These images were constantly replayed as television channels went live 24/7 covering the disaster. There was a surprising lack of censorship over the initial coverage, although since then, journalists say efforts have been made to claw back some government control.

However, Premier Wen won public praise for his visibility. He was seen comforting weeping children, promising food would be on the way. He even called himself Grandpa Wen, showing a man-of-the-people type political bent, more common in elected politicians than among China's Communist bureaucrats.

But Shin Di Lee(ph) from Fudan University says the government was pushed into increased openness by the media and by NGOs against its will.

Professor SHIN DI LEE (Fudan University): The government did not want a massive Chinese media to report this as well, but even Chinese media did not observe the government ruling. And actually, it's the public's disagreement and disobservance of the governmental law that has hugely been helpful to China, and the government has then tried to create an image to hide the fact that it did not want to have this in the first place.

LIM: Is what is happening now change from the bottom-up rather than top-down?

Professor LEE: Yes. Yes. That's not organized by this government. That's created by the ordinary people.

LIM: And this could be significant in the longer term, according to Shanghai-based analyst Andy Rothman from CLSA brokerage.

Mr. ANDY ROTHMAN (CLSA): We'll probably look back in five years and not see an overnight change but a real turning point in the growth of civil society and public philanthropy.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Back at the auction, the moment of truth comes for Loa Thai, who donated his iPod. He ends up buying it back himself for $150 in an act of charity and of patriotism.

Mr. THAI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Since the earthquake, we've been able to show our patriotic spirit, he says. We felt it before, but it wasn't an appropriate time to show it.

(Soundbite of chanting)

LIM: Go, China, Go was the shout echoing at the rallies mourning the earthquake victims. This cry first emerged this spring to express support for China's Olympics, perceived to be under attack from the outside world - now that nationalism is being channeled into supporting the government and the country in this time of need.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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