From Compassion to Apathy in Contemporary Chinese Civil Engagement

Qiaoyun Zhang

On 12 May 2008, an earthquake measured 7.9 Richter scale in magnitude hit Sichuan province, a densely populated yet socio-economically marginalized region of southwestern China. It caused a death toll of close to 90,000 people and over RMB 800 billion direct economic loss. The urgency, severity and massiveness of the earthquake destruction also called for the largest scale of post-disaster relief and recovery efforts in China. Particularly, Chinese citizens not only immediately participated in the post-earthquake relief through local, international, and self-managed organizations, but also actively engaged in the investigation and evaluation of the causes and consequences of the heavy destruction. However, little do we know of the varied yet contested motivations, engagements, activism, and most importantly moral frameworks within such an outburst of volunteering activities. Bin Xu’s timely monograph The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (2017) provides an important lens for us to better understand volunteerism, nationalism, civil society, state–society relations, and moral–political dilemmas in contemporary China.

In the Introduction chapter, Xu defines civic engagement as where ‘participants are coordinating action to improve some aspect of common life in society, as they imagine society’ (p. 8). This chapter introduces the theoretical frameworks Xu uses to analyze such an act of compassion. The disaster is also presented as an extraordinary context where such relations and emotions intensify and are collectively displayed. Xu’s methodology is mainly ethnographic where he not only joined a volunteering group and worked in a severely-hit city soon after the earthquake, but also encountered and communicated with volunteers of diverse background on the ground. Thus, as Xu writes, he aims to ‘understand the participants’ experience, the contextual conditions of their actions, the way in which they interpreted their actions, and the dilemmas they faced’ (p. 32).

Chapter 1 explores the structural and situational conditions that promoted the wave of volunteering activities after the earthquake. Xu argues that the volunteering took place in a context of ‘consensus crisis’, defined as ‘a type of crisis in which different parties are motivated by a common goal to undertake practical tasks instead of confronting each other’ (p. 38). Xu classified different types of grassroots associations into four main categories: emergent NGO networks, gongyi (公益 public welfare) groups, networked groups (based on face-to-face interactions but dependent of a larger network), and small groups (e.g. a group formed by private car owners in Shanghai). Interestingly, Xu examines the multi-vocality of the compassion and solidarity expressed by different group members, who resorted to different cultural repertoires – religious, philanthropic, individualistic, and national identities – to explain their actions and form united groups. This in turn demonstrates the varied approaches of individualism, nationalism, religion, and even Communist altruism in the construction of state–society relations in contemporary China.

In Chapter 2, Xu analyzes the establishment and meaning of China’s first state-initiated national mourning ceremony for ordinary disaster victims, which was held seven days after the Sichuan earthquake. Terming this event as ‘mourning for the ordinary’, Xu argues that several aspects including the Chinese intellectuals, economic development (a booming market economy), media reform (the emergence of ‘liberal media’, development of the Internet, and the increasing reports of more practical and individual incidents) enabled a relatively open public sphere. Therefore, the public commemoration and debates about who ‘the people’ were could take place. Nevertheless, Xu identifies the volunteers’ symbolic distance from the state, who expressed their individual identities and responsibilities as social members in quite distinctive ways.

In the recovery period, about three months onward after the earthquake, Xu observes a drastic change of context for the working of the volunteering groups in Sichuan. Chapter 3 showcases how such changes brought about ethical and political dilemmas to the volunteers and their associations. On the one hand, the state-business alliance was formed. Government-organized non-governmental organizations monopolized the majority of the donation, and local governments focused on attracting investments and programs to boost the economic recovery. On the other hand, maintaining social stability was made priority. Individuals and associations thus had shrinking room in engaging with issues which might cause social unrest; the investigation of the construction of shoddy school buildings which buried thousands of students was one of the most sensitive and tightly controlled activity. Helping the parents of the dead students was also deemed politically inappropriate. Volunteering groups were marginalized. A small number of them were allowed to stay in the earthquake zones to carry out ‘quite, nonpolitical service’ (p. 126) such as donating books to rebuilt schools. This led to the biggest dilemma of such kind of civil engagement. Volunteers felt compelled to help out the victims, especially those who suffered from the man-made disasters. In the meantime, they were forced, and for some self-censored, to avoid politics, where ‘angry’ and ‘dangerous’ activism was prohibited. The conflict between apathy and compassion has become the biggest dilemma in the story of the Sichuan earthquake, where existed an ambiguous red line preventing the associations from participating in ‘radical’ activism.

In Chapter 4, Xu studies those who chose to initiate activism to collect the number and names of students died in the school collapses, particularly the internationally famous artist Ai Weiwei and the Sichuan-based intellectual and activist Tan Zuoren. Both of their activities were prosecuted, where Tan received a five-year sentence in prison. Especially through Tan’s case, Xu reveals the contested development of the dissident and intellectual groups, such as the ‘tiny public’ group to which Tan belonged, in China. These intellectuals had a long history of offering oppositional political opinions on major historic events, such as the June Fourth Incident, as well as promoting commemorative activism to stay alert, independent and critical. However, as Xu describes, these intellectuals had to fight against the danger, suspicion and marginalization from both the state agencies and other citizens.

Chinese civil groups have witnessed a rapid yet difficult development since the Sichuan earthquake. Provocatively investigating volunteerism and civil engagement, Xu’s book, with rich, timely first-hand data of the volunteers and disaster victims, will be of great value to students and researchers interested in Chinese state–society relations, and the moral–political contestations which deeply influence the political, economic and social activities of ordinary Chinese citizens. I would, however, also like to see more discussions on two issues embedded in this process. The first question is if, and how, globalization and in this case international NGOs have influenced Chinese volunteers’ perceptions and practices of disaster relief and human rights issues. I would suggest that contemporary Chinese nationalism and state–society relations are heavily affected by China’s increasing engagement with the world (Du 2014). I am also interested in if there are ways of being constructively yet creatively dissident especially for intellectuals. Xu concludes the book by pointing out that the real problem for the development of Chinese civil society lies in the polity. Understanding the state and society as interdependent and interactive entities with a blurring boundary, I would like to see more analyses on the dynamic transformation of the two.