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China quake shifts attention from Tibet ahead of Olympics

Beijing - The movement of rock that caused the terrible earthquake in Sichuan province more than two weeks ago has spurred a shift in worldwide public sentiment towards China.

Ten weeks before the Olympic Games in Beijing the country's quick reaction to the devastation left behind by the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that killed up to 80,000 people has pushed the controversy about China's crackdown on Tibetan protestors into the background.

At the same time, the compassion and the unprecedented activism of Chinese citizens trying to help the quake victims with a wave of donations and voluntary work has shown a more human face of China.

'The way we reacted in the wake of the quake has changed the picture the West created of China,' Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at People's University in Beijing, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

'And this change has also changed the impression that the Chinese have of Western countries. This is a good reaction,' Shi added.

The global sympathy, generous donations by foreign countries and their praise of the authorities' swift relief efforts have given many Chinese the feeling that the West might not be as hostile as they had thought after the riots in Tibet in March and April, followed by several disruptions to international legs of the Olympic torch relay.

'The finger-pointing is over, and the world is portraying China with a totally different image,' China's state-owned news agency, Xinhua, said in a commentary titled: 'Through trauma, West and China find much in common.'

'Even the worst tragedy might have a blessing: through such disasters people could come to realize that it's easier for different peoples to understand and appreciate each other, when politically charged bias is peeled away,' the commentary said.

Though it is logical that a natural disaster should trigger a different global reaction than politically motivated violence, a sense of relief prevails that the Olympic motto 'One World, One Dream' might still hold true.

Putting forth a positive image is very important to the Chinese, and by hosting the Olympic Games, Beijing wants to demonstrate to the world the progress the communist nation has made and claim its rightful place on the world stage.

However, Beijing's heavy-handed actions in Tibet threatened to tarnish that image.

Commentators in state media and popular online chatrooms dismissed every foreign criticism of the Tibetan clashes as 'anti-Chinese' and accused the foreign media of 'fabrications' and 'bias' while kindling a fierce nationalism.

State television repeatedly showed brutal attacks by Tibetans against Chinese residents of Lhasa, but ignored the peaceful protest marches by Buddhist monks and the deadly gunfire directed by security forces against Tibetans.

This one-sided view, and the deeply rooted belief that Tibet is an 'inalienable' part of China, left many Chinese confused by the West's outpouring of sympathy for the Tibetans..

Many Chinese feel the 'ungrateful' Tibetans have received generous financial and development aid and their uprising against China's occupation was solely aimed at spoiling the image of the country ahead of the August Olympic Games.

The Olympics have put China under intense international public scrutiny not only for its policy in Tibet, but also its human rights situation, its lack of press freedom.

Activists have also questioned China's foreign policy in Africa, especially its role in the humanitarian crisis in the Sudanese region of Darfur.

Being looked at under a magnifying glass by the world came as a shock that neither the communist leadership nor the people had been prepared for.

After so many negative reports in Western media the earthquake suddenly halted the confrontational mood.

At the same time, the government's immediate and comprehensive relief efforts after the earthquake contrasted strongly with the relative inaction of Myanmar's rulers.

Western media reacted positively to the outpouring of public support from the Chinese people for the quake survivors. These reports subsequently changed the sentiments of the Chinese against the Western media.

'Though the gap between China and the Western countries remains wide, the sentimental relationship has improved to a relatively normal level,' Shi said.

'And this change has been dramatic,' he added.

The earthquake also brought to light the advantages of greater press freedom.

'During a disaster like this complete openness by the media is not only necessary but also useful,' said Shi Yinhong, although he was unable to predict how long this current transparency would last.

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