In Tragedy, a New Kind of Unity

By Matthew Forney
Sunday, May 18, 2008; B03

BEIJING

On my street last week, the Communist Party’s neighborhood committee moved old computers out of its storage room to make way for donated materials bound for earthquake victims 2,000 miles away. Within 12 hours, the space was crammed with clothes and blankets.

All across China, images of mass destruction and individual courage have inspired ordinary citizens to donate money, material and sweat to earthquake victims in the remote foothills of the Himalayas. This national sense of purpose might look similar to the response of average Americans after Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, but what’s happening in China is new and significant.

This marks the first time in recent history that ordinary Chinese have participated in a national movement that was not a protest against something — usually a foreign power. Until now, China has defined itself in terms of “Us vs. Them.” Today, it’s “Us Without Them.” The change could have a profound and positive impact on this summer’s Olympics in Beijing — and on China’s self-confidence for years to come.

Until the quake on May 12, the dominant mood in China was one of frustration. Citizens had seen this summer’s Olympics in Beijing as an affirmation of China’s progress. But everywhere they looked, the world blamed their country for something: its support for the regime in Sudan; its suppression of anti-government protests in Tibet; its dispatch of People’s Armed Police cadets to protect the Olympic torch overseas. China was even faulted for Burma’s unwillingness to accept foreign aid after a typhoon struck it two weeks ago. Few Chinese have problems with these policies, and most felt that the world had violated a compact: The Olympics were supposed to elicit praise, not condemnation.

Those feelings of betrayal are summed up in a hugely popular poem that popped up on the Internet in March, called “Chinese Grievances.” The verses come across as an eloquent but passive-aggressive rant: “When we closed our doors, you launched the Opium War to open our markets./When we embraced free trade, you blamed us for stealing your jobs.” (See complete poem at right.)

China’s sensitivity to the attitudes of foreigners is nothing new. For the past decade, mass expressions of national cohesion have always derived from a shared sense of victimhood at the hands of other countries. Young Chinese united to protest against the United States for bombing China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999 (accidentally, says Washington) and after a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet in 2001; against Japan several times, most recently in 2005 in remembrance of atrocities committed in China a half-century ago; and against France because of pro-Tibet demonstrations that disrupted the journey of the Olympic torch.

The Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 was a rare exception, as much of China united against the government instead of a foreign power. But the focal point of the nation’s cohesion was still opposition, and afterward, the government accused “foreign elements” of hoodwinking Chinese students into a plot to divide and weaken the country.

Go back further in time, and the pattern holds. All Chinese schoolchildren learn that modern China was born during a nationwide student movement that began in May 1919 to protest the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and turned Germany’s colonial holdings in China over to Japan instead of restoring them to Beijing’s control. In the century before that, European powers started various wars against China to control parts of the country, including Hong Kong, which the Qing emperor ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” in 1842.

No one questions China’s suffering at the hands of colonial powers. Yet China won’t emerge as a confident, modern nation until it knocks the historical chip off its shoulder, and that won’t happen until it generates a sense of national unity from within. The earthquake in Sichuan was nothing if not tragic, but its long-term effects may prove beneficial, even cathartic, as they help China shape its modern identity without resorting to foreign scapegoats.

For one thing, many Chinese draw genuine pride from their government’s response, at least so far. The quake hit one of China’s most remote and inaccessible regions. Local officials stayed on the job, put preexisting emergency plans into operation and coordinated their activities far better than might have been expected in a developing country — or many developed ones. At the scene, the encouragement that Premier Wen Jiabao shouted through a bullhorn and whispered to survivors, at one point telling terrified orphans that the government would care for them, struck a Bill Clinton-like note.

For another, China’s media have used their expanding freedoms to deliver stories of heartbreak and relief without turning the rescue effort into a flag-waving propaganda exercise — at least not yet. One hopes that this new spirit of openness will enable China’s journalists to investigate possibly shoddy construction and whether the troops dispatched to the region were properly equipped. Nonetheless, what I saw on Chinese TV last week was far superior to the coverage of flood relief on the Yangtze River 10 years ago, which was cynically marshaled to burnish the reputation of the People’s Liberation Army.

These encouraging aspects of Chinese unity have become visible to a world that is most familiar with less admirable characteristics, such as the nation’s inability to understand why Tibetans might have their own poetic list of grievances. Given the devastation afflicting Sichuan, it’s healthy for the Chinese to turn inward right now. Suddenly, not even the Olympics look very important. Even the government has recognized this by scaling back the torch relay, which had been so maligned overseas and so triumphal at home. China shouldn’t need to prove anything to the world anymore. By seeing its people through the Sichuan tragedy, it has proven enough to itself.

forney.commentary@gmail.com

Matthew Forney, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time, is writing a book about raising his family in China.

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