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Disasters, Turmoil Mar China's Year of Celebration


2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, was supposed to be a year-long celebration for China. Instead, the country has been hit by turmoil and tragedy. The devastating earthquake in Sichuan province, which has claimed nearly 13,000 lives, is but the latest in a series of disasters and controversies since the beginning of this year. As Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong, one effect has been rising national pride.

China's leaders were quick to respond to Monday's earthquake. Tens of thousands of troops have rushed to provide relief operations. Premier Wen Jiabao immediately flew to the disaster zone. His visit and the rescue efforts are constantly shown on Chinese television.

Danny Paau, a political scientist at Hong Kong's Baptist University, says this has an enormous propaganda effect on ordinary citizens.

"It seems to me that everything just drums up the nationalism," he said. "They are identifying with the government, the very quick responses. Then of course through the TV, everybody is watching - all these things."

China has faced a number of disasters and controversies since the beginning of 2008, which was supposed to be an Olympic year of celebration. It started just before the Lunar New Year, when the country was hit by the worst snow storms in five decades. Transportation in much of the country was shut down and millions of homes lost electricity.

In March, anti-government riots erupted in Tibet. The subsequent government crackdown sparked worldwide protests and led to chaotic scenes during the global Olympic torch relay. Those protests led to a rise in nationalist sentiment as millions of Chinese complained about what they saw as unfair treatment by Western media and human rights activists.

One thing that has gone well has been the Olympic preparations. Facilities have been completed on time, and with few problems. Despite glitches in the sales system, demand for tickets has been high, and Beijing is ready for the thousands of athletes, officials and sports fan who will arrive in August.

Ordinary people seem not to be too worried about the string of problems this year.

"I don't think it's a problem," one person said. "Good luck will follow us. I trust China will hold the Olympics successfully."

The disasters do have a cost - the snowstorms early in the year contributed to inflation and shut down factories. The earthquake may add some inflationary pressure but economists say it is likely to do less damage. Ting Lu is an economist with the investment bank Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong.

"That's because first of all, the earthquake is in China's western provinces, in Sichuan, and actually it's not in a manufacturing center or even agricultural center. It's in the mountain region, so economically it's not so important," Lu said.

Lu says Sichuan's manufacturing output is only two-and-a-half percent of the country's total, and most of that is concentrated in urban areas that were less affected by the earthquake. He also expects there will be no severe effect on farm production in the area.

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