The Politics of Compassion: An Interview with Bin Xu

After a devastating earthquake hit China’s southwestern Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008, thousands of volunteers left their homes in other parts of the country and traveled to Sichuan to help victims of the quake. This outpouring of assistance surprised many Chinese, who for years had lamented about a perceived moral vacuum and lack of compassion in their society. As Emory University sociologist Bin Xu explains in his new book, The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford University Press), the 2008 earthquake threw a spotlight on civic engagement in the country, bringing non-governmental organizations and social networks that had previously been little-known onto the national stage.

Xu has spent years investigating the dimensions of this civic engagement, first joining the volunteers as a participant-observer and subsequently conducting interviews with those who stepped forward to assist in Sichuan’s recovery from the earthquake. In The Politics of Compassion, he shares the stories of those who sought to help the affected communities and the reactions that their work provoked from the Chinese government at different points in time. The book, Xu notes, is “a snapshot” of civil society in 2008: the civic engagement that he describes was possible only in a specific political context that China has never seen again.

The following interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited.

MEC: First of all, where were you when the Sichuan earthquake happened? How did you come to volunteer in the recovery effort, and when did you decide to make post-earthquake volunteerism the focus of your research?

BX: When the earthquake happened, I was in the third year of my graduate study at Northwestern University. Like many other overseas and domestic Chinese, I suspended my routine and followed the disaster day and night, often in tears. Sometimes, I had to turn off the TV and the computer because it depressed me to see the many dead bodies, usually children. Back then my daughter Meimei was almost seven years old, the same age as many of the unfortunate Sichuan children who died in their schools. You can imagine how I, as a father, felt. A natural reaction was to do something for the earthquake victims. My wife and I then printed out hundreds of flyers with information of trustworthy donation-receiving agencies and stood in front of the Arch on campus, distributing them to students and faculty. But I felt that was not enough. That summer I went back to China to work on another project. Through a friend, I found a group of Shanghai volunteers in Dujiangyan, a devastated county. So I flew there to join them after my research work was done. That was how I came to volunteer in the relief effort.

In the Introduction chapter I described my experience as a volunteer in the quake zone. Strangely enough, I felt happier than I was before I went there, and I was moved by myself. But this self-congratulating euphoria was shattered by my visit to Juyuan School, where hundreds of students were killed by the collapse of the school. That image of the half-collapsed school building stayed in my mind, even though later I saw many other collapsed schools. It became emotionally difficult for me to stay away from this issue.

After returning to Northwestern, I began to prepare my dissertation prospectus on another topic. The prospectus got passed, but my committee raised a few concerns, which were significant enough for me to revise the prospectus. During the revision process, I gradually [began to feel] that I did not have an emotional energy to start the first major project in my career. Note that back then I was reading Randall Collins’s interaction ritual chain theory and fascinated by the concept of emotional energy. Then I thought about what things [could] move me to do a dissertation. Meanwhile, the debate over the school collapse problem became a serious political issue, and Tan Zuoren and later Ai Weiwei began to collect students’ names. Then I decided to make the earthquake as my topic. The change surprised my committee, but the professors were kind enough to let me pass, again. The main reason for this risky move was stated in the acknowledgement of the book: once I knew of the children’s and parents’ suffering, I [could] not turn my back on them. Certainly, I have to confess that back then my proposal and even later the dissertation were an amalgam of very different ideas, topics, and theories. It took me a long time to finally decide on civic engagement as the main theme of the book. I deleted and redid half of the dissertation to turn it into the present book in its published form. Fortunately, the deleted parts were published in articles with different framings and ideas.      

MEC: What were some of the achievements of the volunteers, and what were some of the challenges they faced on the ground?

BX: The volunteers achieved a lot of things in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake: they collected an innumerable amount of donations; they helped the rescue and relief effort in [the] most devastated places; a few of them went to the quake zone immediately after the quake, long before many responders. My book has stories of how much money they raised and how they acted on the ground. Yet this book’s focus is on the cultural aspect of their volunteering. In other words, their volunteering as meaningful practice enhanced public awareness of “distant suffering”—the suffering of complete strangers, which you have legitimate reasons not to care about. In other words, the most impressive achievement of civic associations and volunteers during the emergency period was not how many tents and instant noodles they delivered to the quake zone but their transcendence of their particular interests and group boundaries, and the expansion of their circle of concern to people they had never met.

Nevertheless, as I emphasized in many places in the book, many of the volunteers stopped short of expanding this circle to include people suffering from the deepest sorrow, those parents who sent their children [to school] in the morning, only to see them buried under rubble in the afternoon. For formal NGOs, their quiescence and self-censorship become part of their survival skill set. Individual volunteers also shied away from or rationalized the issue by seeing it as a “normal” thing, something they were unable to change and unwilling to talk about.

Yet I am not on the moral high ground to blame them for not taking actions or saying anything, because, as a volunteer, I had deep empathy with them and experienced the same political-ethical dilemma. Let’s say you were teaching kids in a tent school in summer when their parents were busy rebuilding their houses. You were a nice person; you spent money and time on volunteering and did good deeds. But just 100 meters down the road, there were ruins of your students’ old school, which collapsed immediately after the quake and killed 200 students. You saw the ruins every day. You heard the stories of children: they screamed for help from under the rubble within several hours of the earthquake; and then their voices was fading; and then silence. To take action on the school collapse issue? That’s apparently what the political context did not allow. But not to act on it? It was emotionally painful and ethically disturbing. Gradually you chose not to think or talk about it; you focused on the “nice and warm” volunteering over “angry and dangerous” activism. This challenge to one’s conscience is everywhere, not just in China. But the authoritarian political context made it particularly challenging to transcend the final boundary between “do-nice-things” volunteering that reduces people’s suffering and civic engagement that aims to address causes of the suffering.  

MEC: I was interested to learn that the national three minutes of silence on May 19, a week after the earthquake, marked the first time that the People’s Republic of China held a public mourning ritual for ordinary citizens (as opposed to Chinese Communist Party leaders or war victims/soldiers). How did those three minutes come about?

BX: The whole process is described in Chapter 2. Right after the earthquake, many public intellectuals and online commentators advocated for a formal, nationwide mourning for earthquake victims. This proposal, however, was not new, because the idea was raised after the 1998 Yangtze River flood. But the Chinese government did not show any response in 1998. The situation in 2008 was quite different. First, the civil society—particularly the public sphere—became stronger and had successfully advocated for policy changes, such as the Sun Zhigang incident. Second, the year of 2008 was an image-making year for the Chinese government. Because of a variety [of] incidents before the earthquake, such as a snowstorm in January and the Tibetan uprising in March, the central government desperately wanted to repair its moral image before the Beijing Olympics, which had already been boycotted by activists and international organizations outside of China. Because of the long-term structural development of the civil society and this [image] situation, the state accepted the mourning proposal and followed almost all ritual details suggested by the public opinion, including observing silence, air sirens blaring, and stopping all entertainment TV programs for a day.

MEC: 2008 was an extraordinarily tumultuous year in China: in addition to the Sichuan earthquake, there was a blizzard in the south, riots in Tibet, food-safety scandals, and the beginnings of a global financial crisis—PLUS the Beijing Summer Olympics, which the country’s leaders hoped would be China’s shining moment on an international stage. How did that year’s unique political and social matrix affect the government’s attitude toward volunteerism in Sichuan, both immediately post-earthquake and as more time elapsed?

BX: That year’s situation definitely had decisive impacts on volunteerism and its politics. This is why I make an argument in the book that situation is also important for us to understand state-civil society relations. As I have said in answering your previous question, the Chinese state’s top concern before the Beijing Olympics was its image. It quickly found that its response to the Tibetan uprising and the interruption of the Olympic torch relay damaged its moral image. And the Beijing Olympics was just around the corner. It needed an opportunity to repair its image and put on a nicer face to welcome guests from all over the world; otherwise, the well-prepared mega-event would become a political disaster. The Sichuan earthquake gave the Chinese state such an opportunity to show its human face and its open attitude. Premier Wen Jiabao (“Grandpa Wen”) rushed to the quake zone, worked around the clock in directing the rescue, and shed tears over children. The state’s acceptance of the national mourning ritual for ordinary people was also widely applauded, even by some otherwise hostile Hong Kong media. The state, including governments at all levels, demonstrated an impressive attitude of cooperating with civil society associations and volunteers. All these unusual moves, which represented a “consensus crisis,” a type of crisis for different parties to work together for common goals, would not have been possible if it was not the Olympic year.

Nevertheless, a problem with situation is that it changes quickly and generates new challenges, opportunities, and constraints. In the book, I describe how the “consensus crisis” soon dissolved and was replaced by the all-too-familiar state-business alliance and the state’s so-called “maintaining social stability” (weiwen). In this sense, contingency based on situation is just contingency, and the state still has the upper hand in choosing either controlling or loosening in accordance with imperatives from particular situations.

MEC: As you write in The Politics of Compassion, you provide a snapshot of civic engagement at a specific point in time. In the years since 2008, we have seen the Chinese government gradually but significantly limit the space for civil society activities in the country. How has this change in the political environment affected your analysis of the civic engagement of 2008?

BX: On many issues, the major general arguments about civic engagement in China in my book are still valid and even further supported by the happenings in all these years. The book took me seven years to finish; an advantage of this prolonged process of writing is that I clearly observed the earthquake’s long-term impacts. On the one hand, I have seen stricter and stricter controls over some sectors of the civil society, such as some NGOs, especially foreign NGOs and advocacy NGOs, and the public sphere in general. We have also heard stories of “seven don’ts” (seven things you should not say in public, including the term “civil society”), the “fifty-cent party” (the netizens hired by the Chinese state), and, most recently, even blocking English-language research articles. We have also seen arrests of human rights lawyers and crackdown on dissidents. This grim image is what the English-language world is familiar with.

On the other hand, I have also seen that “volunteering” has become a fad in China, and the participants have expanded mainly from younger population to all age groups and many walks of society. They are less reported by the media, but they are part of the civil society. Therefore, the great divide between the “warm and harmless” volunteering and “politically sensitive” engagement, which is the focus of my Sichuan book, still exists and even gets deeper. The biggest irony of the Sichuan earthquake, as I wrote in the book, is that compassion went hand in hand with apathy. The fundamental reason for that irony was that the state set a political boundary between different types of civically engaged people so that they were unable to communicate with each other, or, in some cases, they did not know or see each other. Things haven’t changed much since then. Now it is almost impossible to see successful advocacies like the Sun Zhigang incident or the earthquake mourning. But the service-delivering, less politically sensitive, and grass-roots level volunteering have been booming since the Sichuan earthquake. Therefore, the politics of compassion analyzed in the book still exists.    

MEC: And finally, what are you working on (or planning to work on) next?

BX:  I am currently working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled Chairman Mao’s Children and China’s Difficult Past: Generation, Class, and Memory. The book examines collective memory of China’s zhiqing (short for zhishi qingnian, the “educated youth”) generation, the 17 million secondary school graduates sent down to villages, semi-military corps, and state farms in the 1960s and 1970s. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are former zhiqing. Just about a month ago, President Xi published a book titled Xi Jinping’s Seven Years as a Zhiqing, required reading for all Party members, and, therefore, his zhiqing experience has officially become an essential part of his “man-of-the-people” image. So my book is unintendedly and surprisingly timely.

I examine how the zhiqing generation is coming to terms with their difficult past and aims to explain the variation in their memories. The book draws on extensive data collected in my research in the past five years, from 2012-2017, including more than 150 interviews, more than 50 ethnographic observations, thousands of press reports, archival materials, and personal texts and images. The purpose of this book is to understand how this important generation’s personal experience has been intertwined with historical processes and sea changes in the past forty years in China. Hopefully, I will finish the book manuscript by the end of the academic year of 2017-2018.