The Rise of the Civil Society in the Wake of the Sichuan Earthquake

It has been more than a week since the deadly earthquake struck Sichuan Province. Among the debris, the enormous suffering and the heavy loss of lives, there rises the hope of an emerging civil society.

Strong government and a weak society was a prominent feature in Chinese history. China was an agricultural society, and every household in the rural area, as an individual economic unit, formed the fundation of the society. The connections among these economic units were loose and almost nonexistent. On top of this base, there was a hierarchical bureaucracy directly controlled by the throne. The bureaucratic system, to perform the tasks of taxing, drafting as well as to sustain its own survival, must exert tight and efficient control of the base population. Coupled with the scarce connections among the economic units at the base, a strong government and a weak society became an inevitable phenomenon throughout Chinese history.

China’s civil society has been budding and growing over the past three decades. After all, rapid economic growth will inevitably nurture the spirit of civil society and empower it with necessary economic means. This earthquake became a window opportunity to observe the Chinese civil society in action.

  • Tens of thousands volunteers all over China hurried to the devastated area for the rescue and relief work. This spontaneous action may indicate two things: the increased mobility of normal citizens; the awakening of the sense of civil duty. When interviewed by the reporter, a volunteer, who is on pension himself, said he volunteered because he wanted to repay the society for the tuition waiver his kids received. Chen Guangbiao, who is an entrepreneur in construction in Jiangsu Province, arrived at the site with 60 construction machines and 120 of his employees almost at the same time with the PLA soldiers.
  • The Internet and other media played an enormous role in both informing the public and conveying the public opinions. The servers of the most popular liberal forum KDNET were overloaded, and there were discussions of lowering the national flag to half-mast before the decision was announced by the State Council. Netizens also fervently debated the predictability of earthquakes, the reasons for the delayed entry of the foreign rescue teams, the auditing of the donations to the red cross, and the promptness of sending the paratroops.
  • The government mobilized resources and man power with unprecedented scale in the relief work. Never before did China lower her national flag in major disasters and sound the sirens in a three day national mourning. The press conference is held on a daily basis, and some thorny questions raised by the journalists and their answers are accessible to the general public. The central television station covered the earthquake extensively with compassion and grief that brought tears into the eyes of the whole nation.

As I mentioned above, the rise of the civil society is inevitable in Chinese society, but its presence was almost forgotten. The remarkable display of the civil spirit in this earthquake make me believe the fervent, stark, often blind nationalism can not be the only force that shapes China’s future.

One Reply to “The Rise of the Civil Society in the Wake of the Sichuan Earthquake”

  1. Similar trends of civility have resulted from major catastrophic events in USA. Usually the effects are short-lived, though appreciated, during times of great need and great distress. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in USA, many people were more sober and helpful in their daily dealings with others, and people spoke with less sarcasm, less flippancy. Families spent more time together, and people gave more to charities. Movies with graphic violence declined, and church attendance increased. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as thousands of people lost their homes in New Orleans, there are countless stories of volunteers from other states traveling there to help with the relief efforts. Our city of Peoria IL, which is 600 miles away from New Orleans, brought in 50 families and provided housing for them. I think these disasters that happen are a reminder of the civility and charity that holds our nation together.

    However, I have also seen effects quite the opposite regarding a shift in civil vs. Governmental responsibilities during major catastrophic events. For instance, in the days and weeks following 9/11, the patriotism and nationalism of the American people increased tremendously. This lends to giving more power and responsibility to the Government, and increasing bureaucracy. The US Government created the Homeland Security Department, and the personal privacy and responsibilities for the average US citizen were diminished. In the case of hurricane Katrina, there were nightmarish stories coming out in the media about civil unrest and barbarism among those who were flooded out of their homes in New Orleans. For awhile, it was practically a “police state” or “martial law” which was being monitored by the National Guard troops who were deployed there. In fact, I have heard that the Guard’s military presence is still monitoring that city. I have a good friend who was sent there with the Illinois National Guard, and he told me stories about total lawlessness demonstrated by some of the “citizens” of Louisana.

    It’s difficult to say how the Sichuan earthquake will effect the Chinese society in the long run. I think the compassion and civil collaberation shown so far, is a positive response to this crisis. Perhaps with the combination of on-going efforts by China to reach out to the international community for the Summer Olympics, and the international community reaching in to provide earthquake relief, China will enter a new era of increasing awareness in the areas of civil rights and responsibilities. The basis of which, in my opinion, are human rights and responsibilities. Human rights and responsibilities provide the foundation for civil rights and responsibilities. Civil rights and responsibilities provide the foundation for national Government. And the Government of a nation sets the standard for civility within an international community. Sometimes it takes an earthquake to shake foundations of societal tradition, and bring a “grass roots” change from the ground level up. Sometimes it takes a Hurricane to expose the weakness of our so-called civil society.

    This all in my opinion of course:)

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