Xu Charts Compassion in the Wake of Disaster

By Ashley Serpa – What can we learn from state and civil responses to natural disasters? On November 16, 2017, in a talk entitled ‘The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China’, Emory University Professor of Sociology (and UC Davis alum) Bin Xu sought to find out.

On May 12, 2008, China’s Sichuan Province suffered a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that affected 46 million people and resulted in 87,000 casualties. “The earthquake became a political drama,” Xu argued, “not just a natural disaster.” Millions of citizens responded to the tragedy by engaging in civic participation at unprecedented levels. Xu, speaking at the invitation of East Asian Studies, outlined four episodes as examples.

The first episode was led by civic associations and NGOs right after the earthquake occurred. Before describing it, Xu used the “complex co-existence” approach to explain the relationship between China’s state and civil society, as well as why such large-scale civic engagement was able to develop. “Complexity, variation, and contingency in state-civil society relations,” Xu claimed, means authoritarian states are willing to delegate some functions to civic associations. What results is a “consensus crisis.”

The Sichuan disaster challenged the State’s administrative capacity. There was a desperate need for civil society to augment the state and, combined with the moral politics involved in disaster response, a collaborative effort emerged. In Chinese politics, the principle of “big numbers”—or the state’s fear of millions of citizens participating in civic engagement—persists. By working toward a consensus about the crisis, the state could also mitigate the potentially negative implications of mass public participation.

Unprecedented national mourning 

The second episode of civic engagement centered around intellectuals and liberal media, both of which advocated an unprecedented period of national mourning (from May 19 to 21) for the earthquake’s victims. Public mourning was usually reserved for “human embodiments of the state” such as government officials and fallen soldiers. The state supported the public mourning, fearing international criticism—akin to that provoked by its earlier response to an uprising in Tibet—ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Publicly mourning the Sichuan earthquake allowed the state to give itself a “human face,” save the Olympics, and rehabilitate its image.

The third episode occurred after the immediate crisis ended, when the state was able to resume its recovery capacity. It did this by building alliances with corporations invested in earthquake zones. Where the first two episodes centered around helping victims, this episode shifted the priority to economic recovery and maintaining stability. It also resulted in shrinking room for civic association participation.

Topography of forgetting

Where the third and fourth episodes intersect is over the controversy surrounding school-collapses. The earthquake caused several schools to collapse and become macabre tombs for the students who perished within. Though the number is likely higher, the State admitted that 5,335 students died in school collapses, 1,000 at Beichuan High School alone. Distraught parents and activists wanted the government to be held accountable because the schools collapsed in pieces, indicating poor construction. The state, in an effort to maintain stability, suppressed protests. The Beichuan memorial was deliberately designed as a “topography of forgetting”—the rubble buried under a nondescript grassy mound with a plaque that says nothing about the victims.

Activists, who comprise the fourth episode of civic engagement, began collecting the Beichuan victims’ names in order to prevent them from falling into obscurity. Some were arrested on seemingly unrelated charges. Formal NGOs, meanwhile, practiced self-censorship by staying away from issues, like the school-collapses, that they believed harmed stability. Many individuals, too, shied away from discussing the school-collapse issue or normalized it, claiming the state was not to blame.

Compassion and apathy 

Taking these episodes together, Xu concluded that the Sichuan earthquake demonstrated the interconnection of compassion and apathy in the face of immense tragedy. Whereas compassion permeated the civic engagement that flowered in Sichuan’s rubble, it was a compassion with clear boundaries defined by the consensus between the state and civil society. “Civil society cannot carry such great hope for democracy,” said Xu. This is the moral left to us by the students entombed in Sichuan’s collapsed schools, whose very names have been silenced by both the state and elements of China’s civil society.

Learn more about Bin Xu.