Nation looks to Grandpa Wen for comfort
By Clifford Coonan in Dujiangyan
Saturday, 17 May 2008
China's Premier, Wen Jiabao, has emerged as the popular hero of the earthquake relief effort, and the state-run media has run continuous footage of Grandpa Wen as he climbs through the rubble to help with the relief effort, even in some of the most isolated areas affected by the quake. And his tireless efforts have proven a great bonus to the reputation of the ruling Communist Party.
His phrase – "As long as there is a glimmer of hope" – has become the mantra of efforts to provide relief to the millions affected by the natural disaster.
Mr Wen has issued the order to make sure that anyone who can be saved, must be saved – strong words that have been enthusiastically welcomed by the Chinese people.
"The central government hasn't forgotten about this place. We will rescue those who are injured. If the roads are blocked, we'll use airplanes to lift them out," he told survivors in Wenchuan, which is at the epicentre of the quake and is still largely cut off, particularly since a fresh aftershock caused setbacks yesterday.
Grandpa Wen looked tired in the state media broadcast, hardly surprising given the amount of time he has spent flying around the earthquake zone. There are as many pictures of him wearing his trademark anorak now as there are of him wearing the sober blue suits favoured by the Communist Party leadership.
"Premier Wen was here, you know," is a phrase that many displaced people and relatives of victims tell you as soon as they start to describe their experience. Even victims' parents mention a visit from the "people's premier" as a source of considerable pride.
This man-of-the-people image is something carefully cultivated by Mr Wen, a former mining engineer. He usually spends Chinese New Year chatting with farmers and country folk, underlining his folk-hero credentials and pushing home the message about cutting the wealth gap between rural and urban China. He was once shown to have worn the same anorak two years in a row, which boosted his comradely image.
This year China's worst blizzards for decades saw him spend Chinese New Year in Guangzhou train station, trying to soothe angry migrant workers trapped from returning home by the bad weather. He is also first on the scene when there is a coal mining disaster, something of which he has experience given his profession. He comforts relatives and calls for inquiries.
There are sound political reasons to encourage popular leaders. The Communist Party is not democratically elected and takes its mandate from the 1949 revolution that brought it to power. As China changes swiftly, the party needs to find ways of maintaining support among the people.
Accomplished handling of the disaster could do a lot to help shore up support for the party. While it is broadly popular, there are grumblings about a number of issues, chiefly the behaviour of corrupt officials who take kickbacks for land deals or other forms of corruption.
There is also public discontent about the growing wealth gap in the country, where the rich of the eastern seaboard have lifestyles the 800 million rural poor of the hinterland can only dream about.
Mindful of the need to be seen to be doing the right thing, President Hu Jintao made his first trip to the disaster zone, where he rallied Chinese troops among the massive relief operation.
"The challenge is still severe, the task is still arduous and the time is pressing," Mr Hu told Xinhua. "Quake relief work has entered into the most crucial phase. We must make every effort, race against time and overcome all difficulties to achieve the final victory of the relief efforts."
The longest week: a rescuer's story
Chi Defa, 29, an officer in the People's Liberation Army, is deputy leader of a rescue team in Chengdu, Sichuan province
On Monday, when we heard about the quake, we were given orders by our commanders to form a rescue team among our troops. Our first task was to try to get to Beichuan to rescue people there, but because the road had not been cleared, we had to turn back, which was tough. But there is a lot to do, and we went to other damaged areas, where we set up tents for the survivors and for patients and refugees.
We spent the day setting up tents in Mianzhu and Mianyang, both badly hit by the disaster, and trying to rebuild the lives of the thousands of injured people and refugees. My team is eager to help people, but everyone is really worried. I come from Chengdu and so do my soldiers.
The relief work continued, we also went to Dujiangyan and we delivered food and medicine to the patients. During the past few days, I've seen many, many volunteers, many good people coming to the Red Cross to offer assistance and try to help us deal with this disaster. I've been deeply moved by the way people have reacted to the earthquake, the way they want to do anything to help.
I was sent with some members of my team to help the Red Cross with their work. I am responsible for helping volunteers get around, and for delivering medicines to the crisis areas with my team, food and water, that sort of thing, anything the refugees and patients need.
It's been another day of performing our duty, ferrying medicine and food around the disaster areas. I'm hearing that the roads to Beichuan and Wenchuan are finally opening up; things are really bad there, so I really hope that me and my team can get out there, and do whatever we can to help people and save lives. I've been really busy during this week of a huge disaster, but I feel fulfilled by what I've done this week. I really want to help those people affected in the disaster areas. I'm so worried about our people who have suffered terribly in this tragedy.I don't want you take my picture on my own; please include my team in the photo; this is a team effort.