In a Beijing publisher's board room on the afternoon of May 12, an editor interrupted our meeting to announce a text message from a friend in Chongqing, southwest China's largest city, saying an earthquake measuring 7.9 had just rocked the area. Eyes darted this way and that, then we resumed our negotiations. Would I write a new preface for a fancy boxed edition of my biography of Mao with gold calligraphy and a gold price tag of $100? And so on.

Next morning, the horrible truth about the Sichuan earthquake began to sink in. The following two weeks were fraught. Massive death induced Chinese TV for the first time ever to report a national event live for days on end. A child's hand, severed, still clutching a pen. A youth, wedged between concrete slabs, only his head poking out, being fed through a tube. Body parts swept into waiting bags.

The Chinese nation was focused as I had previously seen it only during Tiananmen Square, which I spent in Beijing. As at Tiananmen in 1989, a rare collective emotion gripped a country where money-making, family life, and other private pursuits usually dominate. But, unlike during Tiananmen, rulers and people seemed joined in a spirit of unity.

At Tiananmen the mood was idealistic as students asked for "dialogue" with the government, then became angry when soldiers crushed the democracy movement. The Sichuan earthquake brought an eerie but powerful collective grief. Government propaganda contributed an urgent refrain: "The Communist Party is Caring for You." Premier Wen Jiabao flew to isolated Sichuan towns to tell bleeding children, "Grandpa has arrived." This self-interested condescension impressed some but not all. Still, since the government did a reasonable job of reporting, rescue, and reassurance--far better than during previous tragedies--the refrain helped shape the national mood.

At 2:28 P.M. on May 19, just a week after the earthquake, my vehicle leaving Chongqing for the Buddhist haven of Dazu, less than 100 miles from the quake's epicenter, came to a halt. Cars around us stopped one by one. Some honked as if to remind others of the nationwide three minutes of silence. Men and women, dressed lightly in the heat, stood by their vehicles, some clasping their hands at their waists or behind their backs. A few infants' cries broke the calm. No blaring signal announced the event. None ended it. Raggedly, quietly, people climbed back into their cars. The rush and roar of traffic resumed.

What was new was mutuality between people and government in a public observance. For a week since the terrible news came on May 12 there had been repressed feelings. I expressed sympathy to Chinese colleagues I dealt with; I felt better for that, but I doubt they did. Something was missing. A public acknowledgment of loss had occurred for most living Chinese only when Mao died in 1976, as the government put on a solemn, imperial-style funeral. Tears were compulsory. With the Sichuan quake, sadness was felt across the nation, but the people, used to taking orders and hiding their thoughts and feelings, had no public outlet.

A column in China Daily put it well:

Since childhood, we have been through numerous rituals and ceremonies where we did what we were told to do. This was one exception. The great majority of people participated in something because they truly wanted to. All the government did was designate the time.

The three awkward minutes at Chongqing and all over China were unspectacular but deeply moving. No one was compelled to participate. People in their millions did so in individual ways, putting one foot in front of the other, looking down, raising a bare hand to wipe their eyes. After we resumed our trip to Dazu, my driver said nothing for an hour.

During Tiananmen, there was an outpouring of emotion from the grassroots. The government, calculating, hid behind walls and said little. Tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square and thousands of troops shooting at crowds on the night of June 3-4 were the first signal in weeks from Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues. The Sichuan quake was different. People and government were joined in an unrehearsed agony. In Chinese folklore, the seventh day after a death is the time of the first big remembrance. It has no significance in Chinese Communist party history or the international Communist movement.

Whether the effect of this moment will endure is far from certain. Within ten days the party-state was boasting in semi-Maoist style of its military rescue efforts; last week it hampered media in the quake zone. In the United States, the political unity that followed 9/11 lasted only months. Furthermore, the postmortem on a frightful natural disaster is usually fractious. The PRC in its complexity was exposed in the weeks after May 12, but probably not changed.

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.

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