The Magazine


A new China could be glimpsed after the earthquake.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By ROSS TERRILL
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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.