Show of compassion by China's president touring quake area

CHINESE president Hu Jintao cradled an injured Tibetan girl as she wept yesterday and promised speedy aid for the scores left homeless when a massive earthquake struck a remote mountainous region that has frequently chafed at Beijing's rule.

President Hu cut short an official trip to South America to deal with the disaster, which killed more than 1,700 people in far west China's Qinghai province, where Tibetan resentment over Han Chinese rule has occasionally boiled over into violence.

The president's carefully scripted trip included visits to displaced families living in tents and rescue teams as they dug through debris. He also sat with injured survivors in a field hospital and promised that the Communist Party and the government were doing every-thing they could to help the victims. Most of the affected were Tibetan.

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"I guarantee the party and the government will help you build a new home and make sure your children can return to school as soon as possible," he told a family living in a tent.

Footage on China Central Television also showed President Hu grasping the hand of a monk as he pledged that every effort would be made to save anyone still trapped under the rubble. "As long as there is a ray of hope we will try 100 times harder to save lives," he said.

Earlier yesterday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that a 68-year-old man was pulled from the rubble four days after the quake hit on Wednesday morning. It said the man, suffered only broken ribs and had been trapped in a space that allowed him to move around.

At a field hospital set up on the grounds of a sports stadium, President Hu sat on the bed of a Tibetan middle school student identified by China Central Television as Zhuoma, and held her as she wept. Her right arm was bandaged and supported by a sling.

"Rest assured, you will have a full recovery," he told her. "Don't worry. I know you are a good girl. Be strong. You will have a bright future. Grandpa will be thinking of you."

The president and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao have both cultivated compassionate, grandfatherly images in a bid to portray the leadership as putting people first.

But Tibetans complain they lack religious freedom under Beijing's secular rule and are troubled by the vitriolic rhetoric the government directs at their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. They also say a flood of majority Han Chinese to the area has imperiled the delicate plateau and cost locals jobs.

The government insists it liberated Tibetans from feudalism and now gives them freedom to worship as they please. It also says billions of dollars in aid have raised the standard of living in and around Qinghai.

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The death toll rose yesterday to 1,706 with 256 still missing, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing the rescue headquarters in Jiegu. It said 12,128 had been injured, including 1,424 who were in a serious condition.