Only three months ago the Chinese Prime Minister stood in a railway station to apologise through a megaphone to thousands stranded by snowstorms. He was so poorly informed about conditions that he had been forced to fly to a neighbouring province and finish his journey by train. Wen Jiabao has not allowed his Government to be taken by surprise this time.

On his race from Beijing to reach the epicentre of the deadliest earthquake to rock China in more than three decades, Mr Wen made sure that his first public comments hinted at the gravity of the tragedy

The response of China's rulers highlights the lessons that they have learnt from the mishandling of several crises in the past few years. This time there is little sign, at least so far, of an attempt at a cover-up as there was during the Sars outbreak in 2003, when secrecy triggered rumour and panic. And there has been none of the delay and confusion that drew criticism after the late winter snowstorms brought south China to a halt.

State television has interrupted normal programming to run live updates of the earthquake in southwestern Sichuan province. The usual evening soap operas have been replaced by interviews with residents and survivors.

On the internet, official news agencies have issued report after report to provide the latest death toll. Details of rescue operations, of missing children and damaged hospitals have not been concealed.

China's leadership knows that, with the Beijing Olympics less than 90 days away, it cannot afford another blow to its international reputation or to its domestic standing. The party also knows that this is one type of crisis where it is not hampered by a lack of experience. No country has suffered natural disasters on the scale of China. Tens of millions died from floods, famine and earthquakes in the 20th century alone.

Each year hundreds, sometimes thousands, are killed by flooding along the Yangtze or Yellow rivers or by the typhoons that tear up and down its coast in summer. The military has a proven track record of racing to the rescue.

Soldiers build up sandbanks, launch motor boats to reach those stranded by rising waters, send out teams to collect the bodies of the victims and distribute food and tents to the survivors.

This time, too, the military have been at the forefront of rescue operations.

Mr Wen does not want to see China come in for criticism for its slow or secretive handling of this disaster - criticisms levelled against neighbouring Burma as it struggles to deliver aid to 1.5 million people affected by Cyclone Nargis. Further secrecy about China's latest challenge, after effectively cutting off restive Tibet from contact with the outside world in the past few weeks, would serve only to fuel controversy.

China's rulers have on many occasions in the past chosen to hide details of natural disasters, anxious that casualties could be perceived as a sign of failure. But the leadership, aware that its people have access to increasing amounts of information on the internet, is becoming less defensive.

The party knows that the main risks from such a disaster are a tardy response and a cover-up. Leaders with the media-savvy of Mr Wen - who made sure he was photographed poring over papers with his advisers on the flight from Beijing to the scene - differ hugely from the secretive junta in Burma. Mr Wen may be burnishing his image as a man of the people. But past performance would show that he - and several of his Politburo colleagues - care about the sorrows of China's people. And not only because to care will help them to retain power.