Frank Ching

is a writer based in Hong Kong

The Chinese word for crisis,


, we are often told, consists of two parts, one of which means danger and the other opportunity. The May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province presented Beijing with a major crisis, and the leadership responded by grasping the opportunity.

China's response to the crisis has been rapid, transparent and impressive. Premier Wen Jiabao was at the disaster site within hours. In the following days, he won the hearts of the Chinese people as he traveled from one disaster site to another, clearly distressed by the suffering he witnessed. Most moving was when he crouched in the rubble of an elementary school and shouted to a trapped student: "This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao. Hang on, child; we will rescue you!"

All this has created an image of China to which the outside world is unaccustomed. It showed China as a mature, caring society that put the highest value on human life - in stark contrast to the image of Beijing as authoritarian ruler, jailer of human rights activists, and persecutor of Tibetans who oppose Chinese rule. In effect, the earthquake created a truce between the Chinese government and its critics, both at home and abroad.

But this does not necessarily mean China is about to become open and democratic. Not until after the earthquake - and after the Olympics this summer - will it become clear whether the "change" in China is temporary or longer-lasting and sincere.

When President Hu Jintao arrived in the disaster area May 16 to relieve the exhausted Wen, he asserted that "saving lives is still the top priority of our work," even though the "golden relief time" of the first 72 hours after an earthquake had already passed.

To be sure, China's attitude today is different from that in 1976, when a disastrous earthquake struck Tangshan, in northern China. Then, the government rejected all outside help, and a quarter of a million people perished.

This time, China accepted relief aid as well as rescue workers. Now that the emphasis has shifted to care of the survivors, foreign medical teams are being welcomed, including personnel from Japan, Russia, Germany and Italy, as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong.

While China's attitude may have changed since 1976, that of its neighbor, Myanmar, itself the victim of a devastating cyclone that struck early this month, appears still stuck rigidly in the past. The generals who rule the country have been castigated for refusing entry to foreign aid workers and rejecting most outside aid, although there is finally some movement in the wake of tremendous diplomatic pressure.

China's transparency during the quake is to be cheered - but that transparency came about despite the Communist Party's efforts to rein it in, as journalists ignored orders from the Propaganda Department not to report on the quake but to rely on dispatches from the official Xinhua news agency and film from China Central Television.

Inevitably, party bureaucrats will try to reassert their authority by channeling media reporting in "positive" directions, highlighting the patriotism of the people rather than probing sensitive areas, such as whether the government should have let in foreign rescue teams earlier, and whether corruption had led to shoddy construction of schools, which collapsed, killing large numbers of children, while other buildings withstood the tremors.

The way China manages the aftermath of the quake will to a large extent show the Chinese people, and the world, whether the government really is willing to accept public criticism and be held accountable or whether the openness was only a brief interlude, to be followed again by repression.

Already, the Financial Times has reported the arrest of a leading activist in Nanjing, Guo Quan, who had criticized the government's handling of the earthquake. It is unclear what charges he might face. Guo, a former university professor, announced in December the founding of a political party, the New Democracy Party.

The tragedy of the earthquake has softened China's international image and helped defuse the confrontational atmosphere between Beijing and its critics. The question is whether all this has changed not only China's image but China itself. After such a trauma, it is unlikely that China can remain totally unchanged. The question is the extent of those changes.

Similarly, the outside world may well decide to moderate the way it deals with China. The earthquake has showed the world a face of China it had never seen before. China is not just the world's biggest dictatorship. It has shown itself to be a complex society, and this more complex country needs to be handled with greater sophistication.