This year was always going to be a big one for China. Beijing's hosting of the Games, most people believe, will be remembered as a landmark in the policy of reform and opening up. That may yet be so. The consequences of the 7.8-magnitude quake which hit Sichuan province on Monday have been severe, yet even amid this depressing atmosphere there are hopeful signs of progress in China's relations with other nations. Sad though they are, the scenes of citizens and soldiers risking their lives to rescue people from flattened buildings have brought out the best in people. Donations have poured in from every corner of the nation and from around the world. Official media and Chinese websites are full of stories about ordinary people offering a helping hand to victims of the disaster. At the same time, there has been heated debate in chat rooms about controversial issues such as why so many schools and hospitals - apparently shoddily built - collapsed. This has generated heated and sometimes hostile exchanges about whether now is the right time to be assigning blame for what happened, when rescue work is still at a critical stage. Such exchanges are normal and healthy in any society where people feel free to express their views and feelings. Thanks to extensive media coverage, people on the mainland, in Hong Kong and around the world have shared the feelings of the quake's victims, got a sense of its severity and formed opinions about the disaster. The images and reports filed by mainland, Hong Kong and overseas journalists have stemmed the spread of hearsay, rumour and unsubstantiated accusations, which could have deepened the mood of hopelessness and helplessness. By giving a clear picture of the disaster's magnitude and of the merciless power of nature, they have put into perspective whatever man-made blunders may have contributed to the huge loss of life and the massive destruction. To convince people that the government has nothing to hide and has made the utmost effort to save lives is critical to fostering a sense of togetherness at a time of crisis. That togetherness can mitigate the doom and gloom and help the government and people overcome China's worst disaster in recent memory. Positive interaction between government and people will be vital to the evolving relief effort and the reconstruction of towns and villages in the disaster zone, and to the nation's development in the long run. And yet, if the hosting of the Olympics has inspired confidence in China's rising power and strength, the Sichuan quake has laid bare some glaring deficiencies and weaknesses in the nation's hardware (its buildings and bridges) and its software (the search and rescue infrastructure). It has also highlighted the gulf in development between the cities and the countryside. The rescue, relief and rebuilding exercise will provide an opportunity for the government to tap the enormous potential of civil society to play a role. Building a better balance between government and society will be conducive to good governance and social harmony. Following the Tibetan riots and its reaction to protests against the torch relay in western countries, Beijing's commitment to moving towards greater openness, liberalisation and civility has been in doubt. Beijing's handling of the Sichuan quake could not have provided a bigger contrast. Western media have commented positively on the rescue work, unrestricted media coverage and the acceptance of help from specialist foreign rescue teams, albeit belatedly. The big question remains: will the positive changes last, and if so, for how long? But if increasing transparency through unrestricted media coverage and engaging more closely with the international community have brought more good than harm, there are good reasons to believe common sense will prevail among the Beijing leadership.