Is a new China emerging from the rubble?

chinaphoto1.jpgThere’s change in the air in China in the wake of this week’s disastrous earthquake in the Sichuan province.

That’s what freelance journalist and Minnesota native Adam Minter said this morning.

I called him back to check in on relief efforts in the wake of this week’s earthquake, and he says he’s been surprised by the response, even where he lives in Shanghai.

“There are bloodmobiles on the streets and lines going in to them,” Minter said.

The Xinhau news agency reports $200 million has poured into the Chinese Red Cross in the last four days.

But the public is taking up the cause, as well. There are clear plastic donation boxes on store counters and even donation kiosks on the street with the iconic photo of a student holding an IV bag above a trapped classmate. People are making millions of “microdonations” through their mobile phones and online chat accounts.

“It’s an amazing and remarkable moment in China. If you look at how China has handled disasters in the past, it’s a tremendous shift. In the U.S. media, you hear a lot of talk about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. That was about three hours east of Beijing, by car. That killed 250,000 people, but the government covered it up for weeks and weeks. It was only years later that word really got out in China about what had happened.”

By contrast, the disaster is consuming Chinese television, newspapers and the internet now, Minter said. Prime minister Wen Jiabao is shown on TV shouting to trapped victims in collapsed school that “Grandpa Wen” is going to help them. It’s a stark contrast to previous propaganda, although critics say the response to the disaster may yet be spun into a “PR coup.”

Minter stopped short of calling it an “anti-Tiananmen Square moment,” in contrast to the violence and secrecy of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in the nation’s capitol. But there may be no going back to those days, either.

Still, there are other shoes left to fall, Minter said, after the survivors are pulled from the rubble and the dead buried.

“The concern, and there’s starting to be a little bit of an undercurrent on the Chinese blogs, is ‘What’s going to happen with all these refugees out there?” You have millions of people. I mean the estimates are enormous. You have 20 million people without homes and that’s a very volatile situation. You think about what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and that’s a very small disaster by comparison to what’s happened here, and you still had, in New Orleans, unrest. The potential for unrest out in Sichuan. And if that unrest does start to happen out there, you will see the door close very quickly and very hard.”

minter.JPGAdam Minter writes has written for the Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic, among other outlets. He’s originally from St. Louis Park.

Visit Adam’s Shanghai Scrap blog here.

You can hear an edited, 8-minute interview with Adam here. I fiddled around with my Skype settings and seem to have gotten much better audio from him this time.

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