My previous post on the earthquake was essentially about avoiding writing about it, or rather avoiding an overly politicized narrative.
Now, a couple weeks on, I think it's fair to try to sum up my thoughts.
The earthquake in Sichuan was absolutely horrible. But the response to it from within China has given me more hope---for China and for China as a part of the world---than just about anything else in recent memory.
Middle class young people, who have been written off by many, including myself at times, as money-centered and narrowly nationalistic, have traveled to the earthquake region by the thousands. More than 150,000 volunteers have made the trip so far. Some may, like their parents who were "sent down" to the countryside a generation before, return home to Beijing and Shanghai with a greater appreciation for the struggles of their poorer comrades and the community that is born from public service.
Anger at Japan, which has become something of a mainstay of today's Chinese popular politics---particularly the politics of young people---has been set aside for the moment, as the PRC accepts quake aid delivered by none other than the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. The long-term implications of this move could be small or tremendous. The tremendous would be a return to real issues and away from the silly complaints drummed away at by both countries, complaints that had brought down the discussion of any politics, whether foreign policy-related or not, with their bitterness.
And, while some Chinese netizens have been quick to condemn any criticism of the government at a time like this as treason, most people have not blindly closed ranks around each and every domestic institution in the name of "national unity." The Chinese Red Cross, for one, has found itself under intense public scrutiny for its suspicious financial records, as have several local officials who were alleged to have treated aid workers arrogantly or responded to the tragedy with clumsy PR jaunts. This skepticism is healthy in any nation and bodes well for the future.
In sum, the People's Republic has met a devastating tragedy in the way that such a tragedy should be met: with compassion, with openness, and with questioning.
This is no small feat. At a Brookings forum today, one participant spoke of the earthquake as "China's September 11." While the two tragedies were quite different, one being the work of nature and the other an act of human aggression, the Chinese and American governments' responses are worth comparing.
Zhongnanhai allowed the Sichuan earthquake to be appreciated for what it was, a real tragedy, and created space for national spiritual growth ("spiritual" in the secular sense sometimes employed by the Chinese government). Whether the leadership on its own accord reacted with a flexibility and quick-thinking not seen since Deng Xiaoping or it was pushed along by the force of history, it made the right decisions. Holding a moment of national silence, scaling down the torch relay, relaxing controls on the media and welcoming support from abroad all seem completely natural in retrospect but were anything but natural at the time.
In contrast, the Bush White House created little space for real mourning in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2007 and bullied the press and attacked the world (the White House would later rebuff offers of aid from Cuba and others during Hurricane Katrina). Any growth that has happened in the U.S. has been away from those years, not out of them.
Ultimately, though, this tragedy has shown not so much the strength of the government but the determination of the people to do good.