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Reconciliation after disasters

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Two weeks ago, like many China watchers, the two of us were split on supporting the Beijing Olympics 2008.

One wanted every head of state in the world to participate in the opening ceremonies and embrace China as a major world player. The other favored a boycott or "stay-away" protest policy to send a signal supporting Tibet, favoring more human rights in China and signaling that China should become a more persuasive activist with Sudan on the Darfur issue.

After last week's devastating earthquake in China, we are united in favor of all the world community standing in solidarity with China, in fact embracing China, during the Beijing "Reconciliation Games." Call the Summer Games 2008 the "Earthquake Games" if you like.

By embracing China during the Olympic ceremonies, the world community can send the very positive signal that "we appreciate the quick response of your government following the earthquake and we see plenty of opportunities for mutual progress among us." The alternative approach would be a sour, negative, punishment of China with protests, boycotts and perhaps serious loss of face for China. We think China "gets it," as Americans say, at least to some extent.

Recent events in China have revealed the start of a thawing of the long-frozen glacier of media repression and restrictions and apparent disregard for the vast majority of the Chinese people.

Five years ago, as an epidemic called the Severe Acute Reparatory Syndrome (SARS) impacted China and other nations in Asia, China didn't make a sound. As the story broke that the disease was reaching epidemic proportions in Vietnam and Singapore, China started issuing denials that it was involved in any way in the SARS problem.

Sure enough, after many denials of any medical problem in China, news reports began to come out of China that it, too, was experiencing SARS but that the problem was being competently managed.

It wasn't until the World Health Organization became involved that China began to admit to a SARS problem at home inside China.

Now, in 2008, the free flow of information, government honesty and openness, and bloggers and Internet users are showing a remarkable new phase. "This is a turning point. We're seeing a reconciliation," said Wenran Jiang, a Chinese politics expert at the University of Alberta.

The two tragedies that underscore this change are last month's train derailing near Zibo and last week's earthquake.

On April 28, along the line between Beijing and the venue for Olympic sail racing, two trains speeded excessively and derailed. By the end of the day, two rail officials had already lost their jobs in disgrace. Media were allowed full and unfettered access to the site and reporting was honest and intense. In a rare example of China's ability to respond to a crisis quickly and with force, top officials and soldiers were immediately dispatched to Zibo, the site of the predawn crash in eastern China's Shandong Province.

Why such an impressive response by the communist government of China? Because the rail line will be chockful of Olympic tourists (the Chinese hope) this August, and China already has plenty of bad news negatively impacting the Olympics.

But the tragic aftermath to the earthquake last week may well be remembered as the No. 1 turning point in Chinese openness. China's decision to allow a freer flow of information on the quake has resulted in an outpouring of support. Sunday, May 18, giant U.S. Air Force C-17 airlifters began arriving in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province and not far from the epicenter of the earthquake. By Monday, China had received nearly $1 billion in foreign donations or pledges.

And Beijing had accepted not just foreign aid but also specialized rescue teams from Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and even Taiwan. China's government news agency Xinhua widely heralded the foreign assistance.

News agencies were commenting that newspaper front pages and all-news television around the world have filled with sympathetic coverage since the quake battered a vast, mountainous area, killing tens of thousands. The authoritarian government's rapid, full-throttle rescue and the unprecedented flow of news it allowed have enabled ordinary Chinese and foreigners to share in the immense tragedy.

Foreign audiences, especially in the West, are empathizing with the Chinese perhaps more than any at time since democracy demonstrators occupied Tiananmen Square 19 years ago. At the same time, the quake's devastation has diminished the importance for Chinese of Olympics in August and the accolades from abroad that a spectacular Games was supposed to bring.

The rancor seems to be slipping away. We hope this will be the year of the "Reconciliation Olympic Games."

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