The highway leading to Yingxiu, a small town near the epicenter of China's May 12 earthquake, is rent by fissures big enough to swallow a child and is choked with smashed trucks and enormous rocks. Near the town's outskirts, just past a car that has been crushed by a boulder, a landslide cuts off the road entirely. A mother who walked into the mountains beyond to bring out her 12-year-old son says he's been scarred by what he's seen. The landscape they are leaving behind is hellish, she says--putrefying bodies, collapsed schools, buried roads and rows of wrecked houses. But the situation doesn't faze two friends who have traveled here by train, car and, finally, on foot to help victims of the Wenchuan earthquake. Dressed in white T shirts reading I [heart] CHINA, the men are determined to reach the core of the devastation. "After we saw the news of the disaster, we decided we had to help," says Wu Guanglei, a 36-year-old high school physics teacher from Zigong, a town 186 miles (300 km) to the south. "We Chinese people are growing closer and closer together," says Wu Xiangping, 28, who took a leave from his job at a Beijing advertising firm to join the relief effort. "And because of that, the country's morality is rising too."
These simple observations, stated with a tinge of hope and pride, crystallize much of what China as a nation has learned about itself over the past two weeks. The 8.0-magnitude quake, the country's worst natural disaster in more than 30 years, has probably killed at least 50,000 and has left more than 5 million homeless, according to official sources. Horrific videos from the disaster zone--the twisted bodies of children layered like fossils in the sediment of a pancaked concrete schoolhouse, the desperate decision to amputate the legs of a dying girl pinned in rubble--forced the Chinese people to look into the abyss. And reflected was the image of a more compassionate nation than many had perhaps expected, where tens of millions of Chinese lined up for hours to make sure their donations of cash or food or clothes were accepted and where tens of thousands of others like the Wus left their jobs and families and rushed to aid their compatriots. The roads to the disaster zone were jammed with cars carrying banners that read RESIST THE QUAKE: PROVIDE RELIEF and WHEN ONE HAS DIFFICULTY, EIGHT ASSIST. The traffic was so overwhelming that authorities had to close the roads and turn back volunteers. So many clothes were contributed that they were piled in mounds six feet (two meters) high in some devastated towns. Within days, contributions from the country's private companies, not known for their charity, had hit a billion dollars and were still rising.
The outpouring of support has been a revelation. For years, China's citizens couldn't watch the evening news without being reminded of their darker side, of the grasping, reckless self-interest that has characterized China's headlong rush to become wealthy and powerful--stories of slave labor and child-kidnapping rings, rampant government corruption, counterfeit products, tainted food, dangerous toys and, lately, the brutal crackdown on dissent in Tibet. But from a monstrous humanitarian crisis has come a new self-awareness, a recognition of the Chinese people's sympathy and generosity of spirit. The earthquake has been a "shock of consciousness," as Wenran Jiang, a China scholar at the University of Alberta, puts it, a collective epiphany when the nation was suddenly confronted with how much it had changed in two decades of booming growth and how some changes have been for the better.
Of course, when the national emergency abates, much of China will revert to its familiar ways. But something fundamental has changed. There is a new confidence in the ability, even duty, of ordinary Chinese to contribute to building a more virtuous society and a willingness to press the government for the right to do so. Most of those volunteering were doing so for the first time, for example, and many said they were eager to do more community work in the future. Says Jiang: "It's a major leap forward in the formation of China's civil society, which is vital for China's future democratization process." That doesn't mean the Wenchuan earthquake will lead directly to elections in the next few years, but the complex and shifting relationship between the Communist Party and increasingly vociferous Chinese citizens will probably evolve into some form of compromise between autocratic control and Western-style democracy.
It's not just China's self-perception that has changed. The quake has altered, at least temporarily, the world's perception of China, whose growing economic and military might is viewed with suspicion and fear in many quarters. China's relationship with the democratic West has been particularly strained of late, after March's bloody demonstrations in Tibet and the chaotic protests that dogged the Olympic-torch relay. But the quake, coming just 10 days after Cyclone Nargis ripped into Burma, has cast the Chinese government in a different light. By blocking foreign aid, Burma's paranoid military junta demonstrated just how impotent and callous to the suffering of its citizens a repressive autocracy can be. But even Beijing's critics expressed admiration for China's swift response to the quake.
In turn, some of China's most xenophobic bloggers have expressed astonishment at the sympathy shown for China by the rest of the world, the donations of cash and goods and the dispatch of foreign search-and-rescue teams, doctors and other personnel. The outpouring of international goodwill "has changed everything," says a senior Western diplomat based in Beijing. "Now many people will be cheering for the Chinese and hoping they pull off a good show at the Olympics. That will be pivotal for China's self-confidence and its perception of its place in the world."
A Nation's Agony
If the crisis had a defining moment, it came on May 19 at 2:28 p.m., exactly a week after the quake. That was when the entire country paused for three minutes. Traffic came to a halt, flags were lowered to half-mast, and Chinese everywhere stood in oft tearful silence to honor the victims of the Wenchuan quake, named for the county at its epicenter. Drivers honked their horns, and factories sounded their sirens in a collective wail of agony. The ritual marked the start of three days of national mourning, during which Internet activities like online gaming were halted and all TV channels except those broadcasting news were blacked out.