President Hu Jintao , known for his terseness and caution towards the media, grabbed the microphone from a Hong Kong television reporter yesterday to thank the city for its relief efforts as bodyguards pushed the reporter away. 'We appreciate Hong Kong's efforts and we'll do our best to rescue more lives,' he said, a day after state media estimates of the death toll leapt to 50,000. But Mr Hu, paying his first visit to the area ravaged by Monday's earthquake, was really saying much more with those words. Amid the most devastating natural disaster in China in decades, the leadership knows it needs to demonstrate to international and domestic audiences that it is capable of responding to the crisis openly, swiftly and efficiently. Analysts say this is especially the case with the Beijing Olympics less than three months away. The leadership does not have a stellar track record, to say the least, having most recently been slow to act on the snowstorm disaster that affected much of south and central China in January. Its clumsy handling of the rioting in Lhasa , Tibet , in March also raised serious doubts about its ability to communicate with western countries. 'It cannot afford another blow to its international reputation or to its domestic credentials,' said Hu Xingdou , a Beijing-based political scientist. At the airport in Mianyang - which has become a receiving centre for survivors pouring out of devastated areas closer to the earthquake's epicentre, 100km to the west - Mr Hu shook hands with Premier Wen Jiabao , who flew into the disaster zone within hours of the quake and had remained at the scene. 'Usually, Premier Wen is the only human face of the Chinese Communist Party. But now, challenged by a disaster on this huge scale, the Chinese leadership has departed from its typical mysterious and opaque manner,' Professor Hu said. In an unusually detailed presentation, CCTV showed Mr Hu poring over maps of relief operations, holding a megaphone to give a motivational speech to hundreds of numb-looking victims and stooping to get into a makeshift tent and comfort grief-stricken villagers inside. He was even seen kissing a baby girl who lost her mother in the quake, promising 'Grandpa Hu will come to see you again in the future.' Mr Hu used 'all-out efforts' five times in his speech. 'Rescue work has entered into the most crucial phase,' he said, on the fifth day after the quake and with the number of living plucked from the rubble dwindling rapidly. As commander of the People's Liberation Army, which has spearheaded relief efforts, his presence was meant to serve as the ultimate guarantee that there would be no let-up in the rescue work. The smooth transfer of on-the-scene direction of the relief work from Mr Wen to Mr Hu, and a clear division of labour between top leaders, with two vice-premiers, Li Keqiang and Hui Liangyu , also taking charge of parts of relief operations, showed the leadership had enhanced its handling of complex situations, analysts said. Qian Gang , a journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong who reported on the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, said the improvement was major. 'The government's response is much faster and more open; by this they've shown their concern in a best possible way,' Xinhua quoted him as saying. 'We were not allowed to bring cameras to the earthquake zone in 1976.' The absence of the usual attempt to cover up the horror, and the confidence to show vulnerability may have changed the country's international image, which was badly tarnished after the Tibetan rioting. 'The world has been watching China warily for the past few months,' Professor Hu said. 'The disastrous quake has portrayed a country that, besides being a surging, ambitious superpower, is also a people who are fighting, stubbornly, with unprecedented challenges.'