The People's Daily published a lengthy feature online yesterday detailing how Premier Li Keqiang took command of rescue operations for the Sichuan earthquake , over the past 10 days, and analysts said it appeared to be part of a well-planned propaganda push to cast the nation's new leadership in a positive light.
The article came after Xinhua and other official news outlets had run features and commentaries lauding the new leaders' "resolve and capabilities" in dealing with both the quake and the H7N9 bird flu outbreak.
New leaders, according to analysts, are using the two high-profile events to trumpet their talents and abilities in managing crises, at a time when public trust in the government appears to be dwindling. They added that the leadership is becoming more adept at managing public relations and has improved its delivery style. For example, Li has been portrayed on state television not only as a man of action in the quake zone, but also as a caring politician who donned a white medical coat during a recent visit to the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention as bird flu cases increased.
In yesterday's feature, of more than 6,000 words, the People's Daily portrayed Li as working around the clock and even attempting to take part in the rescue efforts himself. Immediately after the earthquake, Li ordered a command centre to be set up in a conference room in Beijing's Zhongnanhai - the Communist Party's headquarters - it said, and he reportedly arrived at the dangerous epicentre via a cargo helicopter within eight hours of the 7.0-magnitude quake.
He also reportedly climbed over debris and rubble to help search for survivors.
"At a collapsed building, [Li] shouted; 'Is anyone under there' five times to make sure no one was buried, before he left," the article said. It also cited a reporter as saying that he saw Li working by flashlight in a tent at 2am, when there was no electricity, and start working again four hours later after having a bowl of porridge with some salted vegetables. Li, 57, left Lushan that afternoon.
The publicity push appears to have had a positive impact on the new leadership's image to date.
"These disasters are the first test, and they have shown they are capable of handling such disasters," said Professor Ke Huixin , a public relations expert at Communication University of China in Beijing.
"There has been great improvement, in terms of faster and more efficient action being taken, as well as stronger command of rescue work and greater transparency in information, compared with previous disasters," said Professor Liu Qinglong with Tsinghua University's School of Public Administration.
While visiting the county hospital in Lushan, Li assured an injured farmer that the government would pay for all medical bills after the patient expressed concern about the cost.
The publicity campaign also appeared aimed at repairing the government's battered image following its handling of the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 that sparked intense public criticism. And the new leadership wants to show to the public that it is faring better than its predecessors did.
The rescue work this time has been "more efficient and effective compared with during the 2008 quake", Xinhua said in an editorial last week.
The Wenchuan earthquake killed more than 87,000 people, most in Sichuan. Former premier Wen Jiabao was also lauded for travelling around the quake zone, but his administration then faced public criticism over its slow response times and inefficiency. Public ire was also high after reports of shoddily constructed buildings and corruption involving donations.
The 7.0 quake that struck on the morning of April 20 killed about 200 people and injured more than 13,000 others.
Analysts said the government was taking a more cautious and sensitive approach to handling its public image, and had thereby attached greater importance to public opinion.
"The new leadership has acquired more sophisticated skills in managing such crises than their predecessors … they have a better understanding about the formation of public opinion and how [it] can help or hurt their image," Professor Liu said.