GWEN IFILL: Now, a Newsmaker interview with China’s ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong. Margaret Warner spoke with him earlier this evening.
MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Zhou, welcome. Thank you for coming.
ZHOU WENZHONG, China’s Ambassador to the United States: My pleasure.
MARGARET WARNER: First, our deepest condolences on this tragedy in China.
ZHOU WENZHONG: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: It’s a terrible loss of life. What can you tell us, the latest casualty figures, and what your government’s been told to expect in the way of casualties?
ZHOU WENZHONG: According to the incomplete statistics in Sichuan province alone, the death toll reached 12,000. And 26,000 people were hospitalized, receiving all kinds of treatment. And more than 3 million houses were damaged.
MARGARET WARNER: But has your government been told to expect a much higher death toll, a somewhat higher death toll?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Very much likely, because we understand more than 9,000 people are still under debris. And we still have yet to reach the epicenter area.
MARGARET WARNER: And so is it fair to say you probably don’t have a good sense of how many people are still missing, unaccounted for?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Right. Right.
China's greatest challenges
MARGARET WARNER: Now, your government has mobilized, what, at least 50,000 soldiers, in addition with police and rescue workers. What is the greatest challenge they face in coming to grips with this?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Right now, the transportation, because the roads are blocked by debris, by landslides, so we need to get the roads open to traffic as soon as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: And how are you doing that?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think, first of all, we're sending large numbers of troops. And we are trying to send in as many big equipment as possible. And the premiere issued an order that the road must be open to traffic by noon today. That's local time here.
MARGARET WARNER: And were you able to make that deadline?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think perhaps they have already done that; I'm not sure yet.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, are the roads also clogged with people fleeing, either from the cities to the countryside or vice versa?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I saw people leaving the epicenter, walking, you know, out of the country town, that kind of thing. I saw, according to the report, some people are walking and leaving the epicenter area.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, what kind of international help, assistance, does China want or need in this situation?
ZHOU WENZHONG: We are very grateful to many governments and many organizations and many friends overseas who have offered all kinds of help. And we are deeply grateful for that to them.
And we are still assessing the damages. So once we have come to some kind of conclusion as to what we need, we will let you know. But in the meantime, we are very grateful to them for that offer.
MARGARET WARNER: And how long do you think it will take to make this kind of assessment?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Once the rescue people are in position, they'll be able to sort of make that kind of assessment.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, your disaster chief was quoted today as saying, "Well, we welcome funds and supplies, but" -- and his words were -- "we can't accommodate personnel at this point," meaning foreign relief workers or teams of experts. Why is that?
ZHOU WENZHONG: And I think because, first of all, it's a very mountainous area. And right now, the transportation was not normal. And lots of people are sort of trying to be rushing to these places, medical personnel, rescue workers, and all kinds of people. So I think, when we have sorted out all of these things, then we, of course, we will let you know.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're not saying that you can't ever imagine wanting foreign expertise or help, it's not just right now?ZHOU WENZHONG: That's right, yes, yes.
Pre-Olympic furor 'anticipated'
MARGARET WARNER: Now, will mobilizing and dealing with this catastrophe distract or detract your government at all from the other big job that it was taking on here or has been taking on, which is preparing for the Olympics?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Of course, the earthquake is very unfortunate, but it took place in Sichuan province. Now, there were many provinces affected, but I think the -- we will continue to do whatever we can to make sure that the Olympics would go ahead as scheduled. And we'll work with other countries to make sure we'll have successful Beijing Olympic Games.
MARGARET WARNER: So your government isn't -- you don't feel they're going to have divided attention here?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Of course we need to divert some resources to the rescue work, but I think we can manage.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, this run-up to the Olympic Games, of course, has not been without its difficulties.
ZHOU WENZHONG: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Most recently, the Tibet protests, the outbursts in the neighboring provinces, including Sichuan province, and then the international criticism of China, the torch relay, difficulties in London and Paris and San Francisco.
Did all that -- has all that in any way marred sort of successful run-up to the games that China had hoped this period would be?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think, on the whole, the torch relay has been a success. No matter where it went, it did receive support and welcome from the majority of the people.
It did come across with some harassment, demonstrations, but I think they were only in the minority.
So I think what is important is that the majority of the people support the Olympics, and they want to work with China to make sure that we'll have a good games.
MARGARET WARNER: But was your government surprised by the intensity of the anti-Chinese protests in Tibet and also some of the international reaction?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think it was anticipated, in a way.
MARGARET WARNER: It was or was not?
ZHOU WENZHONG: It was anticipated that things of that kind would happen. But they happened in such a manner, that is, simultaneously inside China and outside China, with so much violence involved. That is beyond our expectations.
Decision to engage wholly internal
MARGARET WARNER: And does your government still blame the Dalai Lama for this?
ZHOU WENZHONG: We think he -- it must be someone is behind this. And I think he -- and we have evidence showing that, you know, he was the person who is behind this.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet you're now in talks with the Dalai Lama. Why?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Because, you know, that's consistent with our policy. That is, if he agrees to abandon his separatist activities, agenda, and if he agrees to, you know, stop inciting violence, agrees to refrain from doing damage to the Olympics, we're prepared to talk to him.
MARGARET WARNER: But now he said yesterday that he thought China now has recognized that, in fact, there is a problem in Tibet, that Tibetans do have legitimate -- or have grievances, that there's -- I think his quote was, "China no longer is saying there's no issue in Tibet."
Is he right about that? Is there an awareness now within the Chinese government there may be a problems with Tibetans in Tibet?
ZHOU WENZHONG: And I think we should not get these things mixed up. What he wants, I think, is independence of Tibet or some refurbished version of independence, that is a greater Tibet, high level of autonomy, that kind of thing.
So that is out of the question, because no country in the world would accept it. And all the countries agree that Tibet is part of China.
And as far as the development is concerned, Tibet is being modernized. In the process of being more normalized, of course, we'll come across all kinds of problems. But they are different problems, different in nature.
MARGARET WARNER: But as you know, the Tibetans or some Tibetans say it really amounts to a kind of cultural repression, that essentially China is trying to remake Tibet into what is typically Chinese elsewhere, and that they have their own culture and their own religious tradition.
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think that's not true. On the one hand, the central government has tried very hard to help preserve the culture and heritage in Tibet. The central government has spent lots of money, millions upon millions of yuan to preserve all these things.
On the other hand, I think Tibet is being modernized. And that's part of the modernizing and modernization of China. So we see sort of the development of exchanges, cultural exchanges with other sort of provinces, so that kind of thing. So I think it's very normal; it's happening everywhere.
MARGARET WARNER: Did China agree or offer to resume talks with the Dalai Lama in part because of pressure or encouragement from the United States, from other Western governments, in advance of the Olympics?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think this is a decision we have taken, considering the situation in Tibet and outside Tibet and considering our consistent policy.
So I think it's been our consistent policy. I think it's fine with us. We have no problem to resume talks with him; it has never been a problem. I think what we have said is that he needs to, you know, meet with these conditions.
Respect for Myanmar's sovereignty
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, before we go, I want to ask you about Myanmar, Burma, a neighboring country. That government's been criticized for not letting in international relief or relief workers. What is your government privately saying to the Myanmar leadership?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think we are seeing changes. For instance, U.S. relief assistance has been flowing to Myanmar. And I understand Admiral Keating went there with the relief people, relief groups, and had a meeting with some of his local military officers in Rangoon. So we see changes. So I think you need to talk to...
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying the Myanmar government is going to allow international aid workers in to really help distribute this aid, which is apparently the huge problem? Even if it's flown in, Myanmar government, unlike your government, lacks the capacity to effectively handle this.
ZHOU WENZHONG: So I hope, you know, including the United States government and other governments will communicate with Myanmar more and, of course, we will do what we can.
But in the meantime, I think we also need to respect Myanmar. Eventually, it's up to the people there to do the rescue.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean?
ZHOU WENZHONG: Others can only provide help. I think the people in Myanmar have to provide the rescue, the kind of rescue by themselves, eventually, fundamentally speaking.
MARGARET WARNER: But what if 500,000 people more are at risk because the government refuses to accept the assistance that it pretty clearly needs to?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I think they are not really refusing foreign assistance. They are receiving foreign assistance. Actually, lots of foreign assistance is beginning to arrive in Myanmar. And they are getting organized.
So I hope we will give them some time to get further organized. And as to you want to send people and rescue people, rescue teams into Myanmar, and there you can continue to talk to them. And we will do what we can. I try to sort of find out what they need the most.
MARGARET WARNER: So, briefly, fair to say then that China would not support any move at the U.N., as the French have suggested, to essentially authorize action to go in over the objections of the government?
ZHOU WENZHONG: I don't think that's the right thing for the U.N. to do. And I just can't understand why some people want to do this. How could you, you know, do something, regardless of the sort of the sovereign state's position?
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much.
ZHOU WENZHONG: Thank you. Thank you very much.GWEN IFILL: Margaret will be reporting from China beginning next week.