Reporting from Beijing — President Hu Jintao cut short his trip to South America on Thursday and Premier Wen Jiabao flew to a far-flung corner of the Tibetan plateau, pulling out all stops to portray a compassionate Chinese government doing all it can to help the victims of Wednesday's magnitude 6.9 earthquake.
At last count, the quake had left 617 people dead, 9,110 injured and more than 100,000 homeless, the majority of them Tibetan. The earthquake took place in a politically tense region where many Tibetans have long chafed under Chinese rule.
After flying Thursday night to Yushu county, in Qinghai province, close to the epicenter, Wen climbed atop a pile of rubble and pledged to "build a good life for all ethnic people after the earthquake." The speech was translated simultaneously into Tibetan.
Almost since the moment the quake struck at 7:49 a.m. Wednesday, Chinese state television has been filled with images of army and paramilitary troops working hand in hand with Tibetans, some of them Buddhist monks, to rescue victims.
"I think the Chinese already are looking at the larger implications of this earthquake. They see it as an opportunity for the Communist Party to win sympathy through its generosity," Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University in New York City, said Thursday. Barnett said the Tibetans' spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, may see it "as an opportunity to find some common ground."
At a news conference Thursday in Beijing, Zou Ming, disaster relief director for the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said there were nearly 10,000 rescue workers on the scene in Yushu county, but relief supplies remained scarce.
"What we urgently need are tents, quilts, cotton-padded clothing and instant food," he said. "The most urgently needed material will be sent by air, the rest by train or road."
Zou said international aid workers would not be brought into the earthquake zone because of the difficult access.
The earthquake, originally estimated at magnitude 7.1, has raised great logistical challenges because Yushu county is 500 miles from the nearest major airport, and is reached through winding mountain passes at elevations of more than 12,000 feet.
"Because of the high elevation, many members of the rescue team are suffering from altitude sickness. These sniffer dogs, too, their capabilities have been affected to different degrees." said Miao Chonggang, deputy director of the emergency response team. "These are complicated topographical conditions,"
A small, newly built airport nearby was crippled the first day by power failures but appeared to be largely operational Thursday for flying in relief supplies and evacuating injured people.
The main hospital in the county seat of Jiegu was destroyed in the earthquake, and a day later people with untreated injuries could be seen wandering in evident pain through the streets.
Many residents in urban areas in Yushu are impoverished former herders and farmers resettled in public housing under a controversial program that the Chinese government said would preserve grasslands and alleviate poverty. Tibetan human rights groups have complained that the practice has deprived people of their traditions and livelihood, leading to social unrest.
Video shot by CNN showed Tibetans wandering through the rubble in search of personal possessions, pulling out Buddhist paintings and, in one instance, a portrait of the Dalai Lama.