Reuters: By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING, June 9 (Reuters) - The Chinese government's burst of openness in the aftermath of its devastating earthquake was not a signal that the Communist Party is relaxing its grip on a rapidly changing society -- far from it.
China's leaders tolerated free media coverage of the country's deadliest natural disaster in three decades and allowed society to take much of the response into its own hands as volunteers poured into Sichuan province to help the victims.
But analysts say this reflected the Party's confidence to tolerate a spontaneous flow of news and volunteers as it focused on relief efforts, because leaders felt they had the levers to close the tap later.
Already restrictions have been slapped back on local media in Sichuan as the government moves to stifle protests by thousands of angry parents convinced their children were crushed to death because their schools were shoddily built.
In many parts of the world, not least the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, disaster has spawned political liberalisation.
But in China, the Communist Party's ability to manage crises has served to shore up its legitimacy, and it feels little pressure to offer the reforms domestic critics hope for.
The images of Premier Wen Jiabao tenderly consoling the bereaved and injured in Sichuan in particular reinforced popular confidence and trust in the party.
The disaster also cemented a sense of national pride and unity that was awakened by protests against China's Tibet policies when the Olympic torch was paraded around the globe.
"The leadership believes its ways are working ... Its legitimacy is strong. Why reform?" a former senior Party official who requested anonymity said.
Political commentator Liang Kezhi agreed. "The quake won't change the leadership. It scored points in the quake. Policy will not change. For them, the system is efficient."
If anything, the leadership feels more compelled to tighten the reins than loosen them right now.
Even if it rides out the fury over building standards in Sichuan, the government faces the task of sheltering and feeding 5 million homeless quake survivors, possibly for years.
It also faces the prospect of further unrest in Tibet, inflation just below a 12-year high and public dismay over the fall in the stock market.
Looming largest are the multiple challenges of hosting the Olympic Games in August, when Tibetans, Uighur separatists, adherents of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, unpaid workers, evicted home owners and others with grievances could try to spoil Beijing's big moment.
Said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian at University of California, Irvine: "the current goodwill could dissipate pretty quickly if the central authorities fail to respond well to the next challenge that comes its way".
"And the Olympics is not just one wild card waiting to be played, (there is) a whole run of them," Wasserstrom said.
The social challenges mean there will be no change to the Party's determination that stability is the first priority.
"They fear colour revolutions, especially this year," said the former Party official, referring to popular protests that toppled dictatorships in post-Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.
China's leadership is aware of the need for political reform to curb corruption and promote transparency and accountability, but it has dragged its feet because the risks outweigh the gains.
President and Party chief Hu Jintao spent his first five-year term consolidating power as his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, used his still-active political allies to influence decision-making.
Hu is unlikely to risk reforms that would put him in the line of fire from Party conservatives and elders, the military and "princelings" -- the children of the country's political elite. And it will be difficult for his successor to be different.
The Party's survival has hinged in recent years on raising standards of living through economic growth, whipping up patriotic sentiment and controlling the media and Internet. The military, the security and intelligence apparatus, intellectuals and even non-Communists are key pillars of the Party's rule.
"Those dissatisfied have no power. Those with power are satisfied with the government," the former Party official said.
Before the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which were put down with an iron fist, many were predicting the demise of the Communist Party whether it changed or not. Not any more.
"Before '89, China was waiting for death if it didn't reform and destined to die if it reformed," the former Party official said. "Today, on the contrary, China will not die if it doesn't reform." (Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Hong Kong) (Editing by John Chalmers)