At around 7.30pm on Thursday I touched down in Chengdu, China, which is about 100 kilometres from the epicentre of China’s most devastating earthquake in more than 30 years.

Whether the people camped along the walls of the airport is a regular occurrence or the blood-red setting sun is a result of the city’s smog or a fire burning from a derailed freighter loaded with gasoline, I can’t say. I can’t tell either if the makeshift plastic lean-tos lining the footpath for several blocks along the road into town are also part of the everyday cityscape or whether it’s common practice for three lanes of expressway to be shut down to ensure emergency vehicles can speed through.

But I can tell from the people, and nothing need be said, that there’s a grief, a disbelief, a sadness that no words can near.

At the airport and now here at the guesthouse, locals gather silently in front of TV screens given over to live, non-stop coverage of rescue efforts. Since Monday afternoon’s quake the media message has been more reassurance than news. For the moment here, at least from what I’ve seen, it seems to be all about reassurance and trust. That is, trust the government and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Wen Jiabao’s the focus of footage as he directs troops, states unstoppable stats about mobilisation, tells small children not to cry, holds the hand of the injured, and urges those still standing to remember life goes on. His soul stirring sound bites about calm, courage and confidence are the stuff little red books are made of and newer generations might recite his words reverently as testament to the further strengthening of the national character.

China, often accused of cover-ups, does not seem to be underplaying, let alone hiding, from this tragedy.

Undiluted death tolls, the horrid truth that many survivors still can’t be reached, and that some of those who have are in danger of starving or dying of thirst, is front page news.

Foreign representatives of the Red Cross are allowed to speak to the media. Countries offering money and personnel are listed in news bulletins, those who send their condolences also gain airtime; this in contrast perhaps to China’s support for Myanmar’s refusal to initially allow international access to its cyclone ravaged areas.

An unexpected phrase has also crept into official updates. It’s “we don’t know”. It’s still not known how many remain trapped, if the region’s massive water storage infrastructure is damaged or when road and rail links will be restored.

Overriding all of this though is the message that the Chinese government is, and will continue to do the best it can, and that best is The Best.

China, like Australia, loves discovering its own heroes; the ordinary people who rise to perform extraordinary feats in extreme adversity. Their stories make the news too and just like at home, when words fail images of unimagined devastation are edited together and rounded off with signs of hope.

Soundtracks worthy of Star Wars support shots of cargo planes loaded with urgent supplies, valiant overall-clad workers digging through rubble, and triumphant teams pulling yet another person alive from the wreckage. Softer scores accompany scenes of the injured nestled comfortably in hospitals and a heavily pregnant women escorted by nurses in crisp clinical uniforms, while the cry of a newborn is greeted with happy coos from all close by.

Questions are starting to be asked about safer buildings, the protection of power and communication links as well as the provision of clean drinking water… in the future.

There doesn’t seem to be too much debate about what’s been done since the 1976 quake which killed more than 242,000 people.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey