Chinese Prime Minister leads new era of openness

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The Independent Online

The death toll from Chinese natural disasters was a state secret until only three years ago.

In a sign of the political changes inside the country that will host the Olympic Games in three months' time, the Chinese authorities have been swift and transparent in announcing the scale of the Sichuan earthquake.

The Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, has featured prominently on state television after rushing to the scene on Monday. In contrast to the generals in Burma, the Chinese government yesterday reacted to the international offers of aid by welcoming foreign assistance and expressing gratitude.

Yet it has taken decades for China's Communist Party to cast off its secretive instincts. It took three years before the authorities confirmed that at least 240,000 people had died in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake.

As recently as 2003, China faced stiff criticism from its neighbours after initially covering up the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak, which originated there. Last year, the Chinese were accused of failing to share sufficient information about bird flu by the World Health Organisation. The National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets can classify any information as secret – even if it has already been made public.

Aid officials said that it was difficult to compare China's response to its latest natural disaster with that of Burma, ruled by a deeply paranoid and isolated military junta.

"The Chinese have a long expertise in natural disasters, and they are equipped and trained," said Elisabeth Byrs, a UN humanitarian operations spokeswoman in Geneva. "The situation in Myanmar would require additional capacity and additional expertise in order to supplement the efforts of the government."