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Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

For a list of relief agencies active in Myanmar go to worldmag.com/articles/14030

When the earth shakes

China mobilizes after Sichuan quake, promising an opening in sharp contrast to Myanmar

By Mark Bergin

On May 12, disaster struck Asia for the second time in 10 days. With relief organizations and government aid already stretched in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake violently shook the ground of Sichuan Province in central China.

Initial reports woefully underestimated the devastation, which claimed the lives of almost 50,000 people, injured hundreds of thousands more, and left 4.8 million homeless. The tremor, which triggered several dozen major aftershocks and could lead to another high-powered quake in the coming weeks, was China's deadliest and most powerful geological catastrophe in more than three decades.

Any questions as to whether international responders could devote appropriate attention to the Chinese with so many Burmese still in need quickly dissipated. In fact, more money, workers, and supplies have poured into China than Myanmar, despite the smaller nation's head start. The reason: Chinese officials care more for their people.

"There's no comparison. In China, the government rushed in with their army and helicopters to rescue and help and feed and take care. And they've opened the door for the international community to come and help," said K.P. Yohannan of Gospel for Asia, which is responding to the crises in both countries. "This is the most natural thing for any responsible government to do."

China has not opened its doors indiscriminately to outsiders, but the difference between its response and that of the Burmese junta is stark. Some international relief agencies frustrated with roadblocks in Myanmar are diverting supplies and personnel to China. Samaritan's Purse recently transported six water purification units from Bangkok, Thailand, to Sichuan Province after Burmese officials refused to allow the much-needed aid inside the country.

Other organizations report that directed giving for the Chinese disaster has far outstripped that for Myanmar. Public perception may explain much of that disparity, with many donors concerned over whether their contributions might end up stocking the shelves of a Burmese military warehouse rather than reaching people in need. Spokesmen for several large relief agencies have assured WORLD that their organizational policies preclude even the possibility of such a scenario. All reputable charities insist on delivering aid directly to victims without use of military middlemen.

Nevertheless, media reports focused more on the obstacles to relief in Myanmar than the acute suffering of the country's people seem to have pushed private aid dollars to China. The lack of photographs and video footage from Myanmar likewise undersells the magnitude of the cyclone's destruction. By contrast, news agencies have far greater access in China, keeping the story alive in the minds of potential donors with regular pictures on the nightly news.

Franklin Graham, President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan's Purse, was traveling through China when the quake hit. He commends the Chinese government for its swift humanitarian action: "After Katrina, it took our government almost a week before we fully responded to the victims. In China, the Chinese military and civil defense people mobilized within hours of this quake."

Graham, who spent his time in China speaking to pastors, seminary students, and churches, believes the progressively loosening political and religious climate in the country affords Chinese Christians an opportunity to demonstrate publicly a gospel response to suffering. "They've never had involvement in this kind of situation before, but they are eager," he told WORLD. "Every pastor I met with, they were burdened for their fellow countrymen. I think the church will play a big role in this."

In recent years, a dramatic spike of evangelical Christianity in China has overwhelmed government officials. While many house churches remain underground for fear of reprisal, sizable blocs of believers now also worship openly. The need for these public Christians to serve as ministers of mercy and hope is profound. "You have not only the physical needs of these people but also the spiritual and emotional needs," Graham said of the earthquake survivors. "Almost everyone has lost a relative, a family member. It may be a church member, it may be a communist official, but everybody has lost somebody."

In some of the worst hit urban areas, the stench of unrecovered human bodies emanates from the rubble. That combined with unstable housing and other public health concerns has prompted a mass exodus from Sichuan Province. Millions of displaced Chinese people are journeying by foot outside the range of the quaver's epicenter.

Such misery and pain promise to recast the upcoming summer Olympic Games in Beijing as a moment for national healing. That sympathetic aim could suck the life from groups or governments planning boycotts to protest China's human-rights violations.

Already, the calamity has dramatically altered the tone of news coming out of the communist nation. Worldwide energy to highlight the problems with the Chinese government appears largely subsumed in a global call for pity and even acclaim. Criticism and protests surrounding the Olympic torch run have waned, such negative foreign imports now replaced with close to a billion dollars of outside aid.

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