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China copes with Sichuan flood with post-Mao candor

China's handling of the Sichuan flood is characteristic of the openness of the post-Mao leadership of Vie-Chairman Deng Xiaoping. There has been greater willingness than before to provide foreign news media with details on the disaster, which has apparently taken between 3,000 and 4,000 lives.And the central government seems prepared to ask the United Nations for help for the first time.

The danger of serious flooding in neighboring Hubei Province appears to be receding as the flood crest safely passed Gezhouba Dam on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River.

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Below the dam there is a complex of lakes and reservoirs, the largest of which is Dongting Lake, which is expected to absorb most of the floodwaters before they reach the mid-Yangze's industrial and communications hub, Wuhan.

Though China has suffered from floods since time immemorial, this one is described as the worst in the province since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

The flood level on the YAngtze is the highest it has been in 85 years, according to a Chinese television report. There is still danger in the Jingjiang section of the Yangtze River immediately below the Gezhouba Dam, but by the time the flood crest passes Wuhan (expected around July 24) it may be several meters lower than the record registered in 1954.

The death toll of 3,000 to 4,000 comes from preliminary figures supplies to foreign news agencies by provincial authorities but not yet published in the local press. From the same source also comes a report of 50,000 rooms (living units in apartment buildings or free- standing houses) destroyed.

So far there has been no formal request for United Nations assistance, and UN officials here are still standing by for the government to let them know what kinds of assistance are needed. Nor have foreign reporters so far been permitted to tour flooded areas.

But China, after decades of proudly insisting it would take care of its own disaster relief efforts, last year accepted the principle that as a member of the world community, it is entitled both to ask for and to offer international disaster aid. Being the first time, however, last year the Chinese request was presented months after the calamities had occurred (drought in the north, floods in central China).

This time, UN sources here expect a more rapid approach by the Chinese and better coordination of national with international relief efforts.

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The international aspect, in any case, can be only a minor proportion of the total relief effort needed -- a point regarding which the Chinese seem to be fully aware. Sichuan Province, which is about 1,000 miles inland from Shanghai, has a population of nearly 100 million -- nearly half the population of the United States.

The Yangtze, China's longest river, goes through a series of spectacular gorges both before coming down to the Sinchuan plains from the Tibetan highlands , and between Sichuan and the central China plain.

Rainy and semitropical, with lush vegetation, Sichuan is the home of the panda and is also China's major rice basket. But it is also flood-prone. Dikes have been better maintained and built higher since the advent of the People's Republic, but the flood watch along the Yangtze and its major tributaries is an anxi ous time each summer.

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