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China enjoys rare moment of global support

The country won long-sought international sympathy for its tragic earthquake and rapid government response.

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In an unexpected silver lining to the tragic Sichuan earthquake, China's international image has enjoyed dramatic improvement over the past two weeks as people around the world react with sympathy for the victims and admiration for Beijing's immediate response.

But the turnaround remains fragile, say Chinese and foreign scholars. It is especially susceptible to a retreat by the government from the very policy that has earned it so much kudos: press freedom.

"The new image is quite vulnerable," says Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. "The honeymoon won't last long because the Chinese people themselves will start asking questions" about embarrassing issues such as the number of schools that collapsed. "You can't rule out criticism mounting and the government becoming defensive."

The year 2008, when the Olympic Games were to give Beijing a chance to show itself at its best, began badly for the authorities. The crackdown in Tibet behind a veil of secrecy, the controversy surrounding the Olympic torch relay, and a barrage of criticism from foreign activists further sullied an image already dented by food and other safety scandals.

The recent earthquake, thought to have cost upwards of 80,000 lives, and the government's quick and forceful response, cast China in a new light, however.


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