At 2:38 pm on Monday afternoon, everything in China seemed to stop. It was exactly one week after the Wenchuan earthquake devastated parts of Sichuan province, flattening schools, endangering dams, and killing over 55,000 people. Trains screeched to a halt, work paused, people stood next to their cars, and everyone bowed their heads to take a collective breath for 3 minutes. Rather than silence, the moment was met with the deafening, chilling sound of the horns of thousands of cars.
For years, the government has been using propaganda to push the idea of a "harmonious society" and a "civil society" on the public. The vague advice to pay attention to the less fortunate sections of the country, end corruption, and stop spitting on the street have been plastered across cities like Beijing, amidst a growing rural-urban wealth gap and in time for the Olympics in August. But the horns seemed like a signal: having nothing to do with political ideology or saving face -- or the government's interests -- a civil, harmonious society had arrived.More so than any of the other misfortunes that have befallen China this year, or over the past decade -- and more so than 9/11 or Katrina was for the U.S. -- the earthquake and its aftermath is a watershed moment for China. The Western media has latched on to two major stories in that vein: the earthquake has opened China up, both in terms of its media and its willingness to accept foreign assistance. And it has shown that the Chinese government, unlike the Burmese, is more than prepared to respond to emergencies.
But a more compelling and important story line may be this: the earthquake response isn't about government strength or flexibility, but rather about how individual people can and are playing a larger role than ever in shaping Chinese society.
The story begins with media coverage, the Communist Party's main tool for controlling public opinion. While China's leaders have been credited for allowing the media to report the disaster, often with thorough wall-to-wall coverage on state-run TV, the fact is that they had little choice. The traditional organs of control were out of control. The unstoppable avalanche of information that comes with the internet, blogs and mobile phones, as well as the increasing presence of foreign media (many of whom have come in advance of the Olympics) makes it all but impossible to squash the story -- which apparently is what officials tried to do at first.
The internet and mobile phones are also making it harder for officials to stop protests, like the "walk" that took place in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, over a proposed chemical factory earlier this month. Now, as the central government tries to temper reporting with more reserved stories and upbeat tales of heroism, citizen discussion via the internet is helping to air criticism of the military's response, wonder if officials in Sichuan knew the quake was imminent beforehand, and begin to ask why so many schools collapsed.
In a way, the central government has been encouraging communication and transparency for a while now. It knows that hiding information not only makes the Party look bad -- it's dangerous. The transparency effort that began with the SARS crisis in 2003 and continued after the toxic spill in Harbin in 2005 (in both cases local officials tried cover-ups) culminated in a recent law mandating openness around government disasters. This month sees another set of regulations that encourage citizen reporting go into effect. Officials were quick to promise that donations would be handled transparently.
Which brings me to the second example of popular action in the earthquake's shadow: the incredible response by China's citizens and NGOs.
This is not a country known for philanthropy or volunteerism. It's a place where problems are typically the responsibility of the government. But as TV showed thousands of soldiers pouring into Sichuan to help with relief efforts, an even larger mobilization effort was taking place across China.
Blood banks received so many donations in the days after the quake that they had to turn people away. Students have been pitching in pennies; companies have pledged more than the $500 million given by the government (see an interesting list by donation amount here). Thousands of volunteers, either individuals or part of domestic or foreign rescue groups, spontaneously traveled to the region to pitch in. The government has warned citizens not to come, but they keep coming.
This unusual grassroots spirit of volunteerism and philanthropy is palpable in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where charity events have been held every night. Though it might speak to the same needs as the spontaneous mass mobilization that swept China after the protests in Tibet -- people often talk about a loss of spirituality and group identity in China -- the response to the earthquake isn't fueled by an overwhelming, ugly nationalism. It's powered by a recognition by people that others need their help, and that they, as individuals can do as much as if not more than the government can. For young China, searching for meaning, guided as much by the spell of consumerism as by the stay-in-line ethics of Communism and Confucianism, that's a significant recognition.
After the 3-minute moment of "silence" passed in Beijing's central business district, a Chinese friend remarked under her breath how pathetic it was that it took a disaster to make China's urbanites care about the people in the rural areas, where shoddily-built schools are arguably responsible for thousands of deaths. But it's not sad, really. The response to the earthquake is a sign of civic mindedness, social purpose, and individual action unlike any seen in recent memory.
A similar kind of solidarity, sense of purpose and idealism brought students together nearly two decades ago, to Tiananmen Square; it was a sign of progress that ended in disaster. This story goes in reverse: it begins with a disaster and could end with hope.
Here's how Rowan Callick puts it in the Australian newspaper:
A generation in the US still weighs its worth to a degree by whether it attended the Woodstock festival in 1969 or joined demonstrations against the Vietnam War. In 2048, older Chinese will be comparing notes about what they did during the great quake of 2008.
Those hoping that the earthquake might help weaken the government's power, or introduce some radical new transparency and media openness, will be disappointed. On the contrary, the official response will probably only bolster the government's ability to control the country. But that's a good thing. It's generally agreed that a strong central government is necessary to enforcing laws against corruption and preventing corner-cutting, which may be to blame for Sichuan's earthquake-vulnerable schools.
But the earthquake is proof that in times of disaster -- be it natural or man-made, political or environmental -- the government's responses, its investigations and reforms, will need more than ever to heed the people. They're more vigilant, they care, and they're getting louder. Listen to those horns.
To learn how to contribute to the relief effort, CNReviews offers a thorough list of organizations operating in Sichuan.