The Magazine


A new China could be glimpsed after the earthquake.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By ROSS TERRILL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

And yet. A twist in China's future was foreshadowed in the response to the Sichuan earthquake. During Tiananmen, urban citizens shocked the government by sympathizing with the pro-democracy students. Students and citizens met their match in the government's bullets and tanks. State beat back society. Nineteen years later, after the earthquake, untold millions of Chinese stepped in of their own volition in bold and generous solidarity with the victims. Chinese TV became vaguely normal for a crucial moment.

Day and night we watched the search for survivors, trapped and mangled in the rubble. It is not that society beat back the state, simply that society proved a powerful force independent of the state. A fine New York Times article quoted a Shanghai TV executive explaining why his station could not follow the order from the Propaganda Department in Beijing not to send reporters to the quake area. "This is about China," he blurted out to Howard French. The tragedy simply had to be shared with fellow Chinese.

A former student of mine from China, now a businessman in Shenzhen in the south, had recently opened a branch office of his successful IT import business in Mianyang, a city hit by the quake. By a miracle, none of his 24 Mianyang employees was killed, though the office was wrecked.

"We flew them all to Shenzhen," the businessman told me. "My workers in Shenzhen raised $21,000 for quake victims. For the company, I added $15,000." Some of his staff wanted to channel the money through the Chinese Red Cross, which is virtually a finger on the hand of the party-state. My former student said no. "We want to stand on our own feet. I don't want to just depend on the government. If the folk from Mianyang need more, we'll go back and raise it."

The Sichuan earthquake not only energized him, but led to a step that, after our two decades of friendship, came as a surprise. Never before one to talk about religion, he told me he organized a private Christian service, over dinner, with eight relatives and staff members at a restaurant in Shenzhen. "We sang hymns, took turns reading from the Scriptures, and prayed for the lost people. No beer or wine on this occasion. We felt better afterwards."

"It's been 30 years of chasing after money in China," he said, striking another new note. "And people haven't paid enough attention to spiritual life. Now we Chinese have money; we must also have care and trust in each other. Because China has improved, there's a real private realm where action may be taken--we took it."

This businessman in his 40s, briefly a civil servant in Beijing before coming to Harvard, links his self-reliance to a wariness of the Beijing government, frustration at its lack of transparency, and disgust at its corruption. "If the Sichuan earthquake happened in Japan or USA, there would have been many more survivors," he said with agitation. "Our rescue rate of less than 1 in 10 was very low."

In China some matters are strictly for the government. Politics is for the Communist party-state. Ordinary folk may pursue private goals. Beijing trusts the people with their money, but not with their minds. But the Sichuan earthquake, throwing everyone naked into the air, momentarily bridged the divide.

The government lost buildings and wealth. The people lost 70,000 of their own. Yet in its shocking arbitrariness, the earthquake imposed a common loss, and China, for a while, seemed one family. In the midst of grief, the balance between state and society may have tipped a few degrees further toward society.

Ross Terrill of Harvard's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center this spring. His books include Mao, The New Chinese Empire, and China in Our Time.