According to Premier Wen Jiabao, last week's earthquake in Sichuan province was the biggest natural disaster since the establishment of the People's Republic of China. For China, how it handles the disaster will be a defining moment. The country is united as never before, with so many people offering to donate blood that many have had to be turned away. Tens of thousands of people have driven to disaster sites, bringing all the food and water they could carry - a sure sign of a vibrant civil society in the making. Mr Wen was on a plane to the devastated area within hours of the first report of the quake. And, over the succeeding week, he was everywhere, toting his bullhorn - assuring people trapped in the debris that they would not be abandoned and exhorting rescuers to do everything possible as long as there was the slightest chance of a single individual being pulled out alive. And, most amazing of all, these stories were told in real time on Chinese television and analysed in-depth in the newspapers. Not only was the media unleashed - foreign journalists, too, were allowed to do their work without hindrance, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman wishing them success in their work while asking them to 'please take care of yourselves'. The result, not surprisingly, was an avalanche of positive publicity for China, which should counterbalance to some extent the explosion of China-bashing since late March in the wake of the riots in Tibet and the subsequent crackdown. 'The earth is shifting in China in more ways than geologic,' an opinion piece in the Washington Post declared. And The New Zealand Herald commented: 'China's response to this week's catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province has revealed a compassion, openness and efficiency that casts the country in a new light.' Inevitably, there are comparisons being made with the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 that claimed 250,000 lives. China was then a closed society and the government turned down all offers of help. This time, China was confident enough in itself to accept outside help. The Foreign Ministry reported that 151 countries and 14 international and regional organisations had 'extended solicitude and support' in various forms and 'the Chinese government and people are very grateful'. However, rescue teams from abroad were not allowed into the country until Thursday, more than 72 hours after the quake, when the prime time for rescue had passed. It is understandable that China needed time to assess the damage and its capacity to make use of foreign rescue teams. But, had they been allowed in earlier, a few more lives could well have been saved. Nonetheless, the Sichuan tragedy has already shown the Chinese government, its people and the world what a more open society is like, with the media being allowed to do its job without undue restraint. A free media can make China a more harmonious society, rather than the other way around. It is possible that a more open media could have reduced the death toll of this earthquake. The collapse of scores of schools, while other structures were left standing, has caused many to ask whether the construction of flimsy schoolhouses was a result of corruption. This was something that a free media could have zeroed in on long before the earthquake occurred. Ironically, the open manner in which China is undergoing its present trauma is winning for the country international sympathy and understanding that no amount of paid public relations could have bought. Much depends on how Beijing handles the aftermath of the earthquake and demonstrates its management skills and its willingness to be held accountable. It is then that the world will be able to tell if the Chinese people now have a modern government, one of which they can be proud. Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.