In the wake of the tragic Sichuan earthquake, something big is astir in China. It was not just the earth that shook on this peaceful afternoon of May 12, 2008. Society and the political world moved as well.
Future historians may well remember this month as a watershed moment. The time has come for us to take note and change course in our understanding of China. This is probably one of the most important tasks in front of us when we map out our future decades. The stakes could not be higher, given the upcoming realignment in international politics.
On May 12, at 2:28pm, we witnessed firsthand as the fault lines that run alongside the mountains of Sichuan roared to life and unleashed one of the worst human disasters in decades. In a mere three minutes, millions of buildings were razed, several cities were entirely wiped out, and at least 80,000 people died. Mountains literally slid down into valleys, shifting the course of rivers. Entire schools collapsed on hapless students, killing for example over 1,000 in one instant in Beichuan middle school.
Yet, in the midst of this huge tragedy, we witnessed an amazing human spirit and unprecedented response. Consider the following:
• The Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, was on site within hours, sparing no efforts to organize rescue efforts. In the process, he stirred a grassroots wave of affection. A week later, we witnessed a movement among internet-wired youth in hyper-capitalist Shenzhen to send a million text messages of thanks to the Prime Minister.
• The government gave unprecedented access to foreign media and welcomed foreign aid and rescue teams within days. Following years of Sino-Japanese tensions, it was refreshing to see Japanese rescue teams on the ground in Sichuan deploying their know-how to find survivors in the rubble alongside the Chinese army.
• Literally millions of people have lined up to donate money in all major cities of China. For the first time, people have become aware of the recent wealth of the nation and of the power that this private wealth can wield.
• Thousands of individuals and hundreds of civil society groups, ecological NGOs, religious group, and professional associations have flocked to Sichuan in a spontaneous outpouring of goodwill.
These events should open our eyes. China is in the midst of great change.
While still a one-party dictatorship that responds harshly to any perceived threat to its national integrity, China has undergone a deep social transformation and gradual political evolution over the last decade.
Its mode of governance increasingly leaves wide policy space to burgeoning grassroots organizations in non-security issue areas.
In the fields of environmental or biosafety governance, hundreds of civil society groups have gained significant influence and the government relies on such organizations to provide information or alarm bells. Our own research has uncovered growing evidence of representation and integration of public voice, even if formal institutions are not in place.
Chinese public opinion filters events through a historical framework. Western moralizing triggers imperialistic memories and is seen as an effort to stop China from regaining its historical position of preeminence. Yet, the room for more informal feedback and transfer of best practices in anything from environmental management to minority relations is much greater than often realized. There is no need to waste this opportunity through public grand-standing.
A more dispassionate and pragmatic look at the changes occurring within China and a better understanding of Chinese public opinion may well be the wisest course of action for us. Let it be known: in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake, there are unprecedented opportunities to engage Chinese society through a variety of channels.
Yves Tiberghien is a faculty member in political science at the University of B.C., where he teaches Chinese politics. He is just back from a research trip in China, including in Sichuan.
Yvonne Xiao is a newspaper columnist and active member of the Chinese Canadian community. She is a native of Sichuan and was in Chongqing on May 12.