The reports coming out of southwest China's Sichuan Province after last Monday's earthquake are grim. Up to 50,000 feared dead as I write and the very real prospect of many thousands more losses as bodies continue to be uncovered. The scenes are heartrending. Orphaned children huddled together in blank-faced shock, bereft parents sobbing for the sons and daughters they will never see again, entire towns and villages all but obliterated.
And in the thick of it all are China's top leaders. Renowned presser of the common flesh, Premier Wen Jiabao, was rolling up his sleeves to oversee rescue work in Sichuan just six hours after the tremor. Shots of the teary eyed premier comforting grief stricken children and handing out bottled water to those left with nothing were all over the evening news.
President Hu Jintao was not far behind, arriving in the provincial capital Chengdu on Friday where he declared, "We must make every effort, race against time and overcome all difficulties to achieve the final victory of the relief efforts."
It's hard to know exactly what a final victory against a massively destructive natural disaster would look like, but you can be sure the People's Liberation Army, fully equipped as they are with spades and the odd helicopter, will fight to the end.
But the day's most interesting comments came from Premier Wen. Chinese state newswire service Xinhua quoted him as saying the quake was "the biggest and most destructive [natural disaster] since new China was founded in 1949" and adding that this time, "the quick response had helped reduce casualties to the greatest extent." It seems likely that many more could have been saved if the country's non-existent emergency response team were on hand with specialist rescue equipment, but that's not the interesting bit really.
The interesting bit is this: In July 1976 Tangshan city, some 140km southeast of Beijing, was all but flattened by a quake. The official death toll of 242,419 was given by the China Seismological Bureau in 1988 (yes, 12 years later) but the actual figure is likely to have been around three times higher. Is it possible the premier could have forgotten about this? Surely not. Three quarters of a million deaths is a lot even in the world's most populated country, as is 242,419 come to that. So why would he choose to ignore this?
Politics. 1976 was a turbulent year for the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). The people were weary of the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, in January the much-loved Premier Zhou Enlai had died and Chairman Mao Zedong was old and infirm, six weeks after the quake he was dead too. The government response to the disaster was manipulated by CPC factions fighting for supremacy as Mao lay dying. (Take a look here if you want a brief rundown.)
Perhaps even more shameful for the present CPC leaders was the rescue operation. The official response was far too slow and all foreign aid and expert assistance was refused, even from the UN. No foreign reporters were allowed into the ruined city until seven years later.
There was no mucking around this time. Tens of thousands of troops were mobilized immediately and international contributions are being gratefully received. By Friday, expert search and rescue teams from Japan, Russia, South Korea and Singapore were at the scene – the first overseas professional rescuers allowed into the country for sixty years.
Natural disasters can be a boon to beleaguered politicians. If well handled, they provide PR opportunities on a scale that not even China's Party Propaganda Department could whip up. (Actually they changed the English name to the Publicity Department in 1998 but I prefer the old name. Why lie about a liar?)
China's international image has taken a battering by protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay and claims that not enough has been done to honour promises made to improve its human rights record. Back home, endless government corruption scandals, soaring inflation, illegal land grabs and the ever-widening wealth gap are putting immense pressure on Beijing.
The earthquake is a golden opportunity for the government to show its warm fuzzy side to both the international community and those suffering at home. And it has to be said, Party leaders are doing a great job of maximizing the PR potential. Foreign media are praising the government's openness, and in China online chatrooms and networking sites are filled with outpourings of love and gratitude for Premier Wen.
But don't go thinking it's all about the people in the People's Republic. As he flew to Sichuan, Wen told reporters onboard the plane, "I believe we can certainly overcome the disaster with the public and the military working together under the leadership of the Party and the government."
Imagine, if you will, Helen Clark calling on the nation to rally together under the Labour Party in the face of a natural disaster. That's one of the perks about dictatorships - leaders can say this sort of thing without fear of being pilloried by the press they control.
A lot can get lost in poor translation, but the underlying message is pretty clear: We're doing a great job, so don't start any anti-government trouble and don't go taking any independent action.
As questions started to be raised over why some large buildings collapsed instantly while others nearby remained standing, authorities quickly promised to investigate. The passport office in Chengdu has probably run out of applications forms already as crooked officials scurry for cover. This issue has potential to be hugely damaging to the Party, especially since so many of these so-called "tofu buildings" were classroom blocks filled with students when the quake struck.
But no matter what the outcome of the inquiry, China is looking a hell of a lot better right now than its neighbour and good friend Myanmar. Not that this has occurred to Premier Wen or President Hu, I'm sure.