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Bin Xu On the Sichuan Earthquake and the Politics of Compassion

Why do people volunteer or donate after a natural disaster? Is this human nature, or can these responses tell us something about the politics of large-scale social mobilization around charitable causes? In a talk drawn from his new book The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China, Assistant Professor of Sociology Bin Xu argued that sentiments of compassion, while natural, require complex social conditions to translate into action.

Xu, who earned his Ph.D. at UC Davis and is now teaching at Emory University, based this book on dissertation research examining responses to the devastating earthquake that struck Sichuan, China, in May of 2008. More than 80,000 were killed, and close to 50 million affected by the 7.9 magnitude quake. What followed was an unprecedented mobilization of Chinese civil society.

Groups and individuals organized to collect donations and volunteer, bolstering almost-overwhelmed state resources. Xu splits the disaster response into emergency, advocacy and recovery stages, and analyzes the ways in which people mobilize to help others affected, the political stakes to some of their claims on the government, and the implications of this type of widespread social mobilization (a phenomenon which, in and of itself, carries political potential).

Xu keeps his focus on the question of what these actions meant to participants. In comparing civil society participation following the earthquake to previous state-organized acts of mourning (for the funerals of political figures), Xu dwells on the question “for whom the bell tolls?” He argues that something very different is happening when civil society organizations mourn publicly for ordinary, sometimes unidentified, people.

Coming from a cultural sociology approach, Xu focuses on context, action and meaning-making and teases out through interviews the cultural and emotional significance of volunteering. Xu describes how interviewees mobilize concepts in their environment to justify engagement, and how political context shapes cultural meaning. Ultimately, Xu draws us into the intersection of altruism and politics, emotional response and collective solidarity that he found as he, too, travelled to Sichuan after the earthquake to volunteer.

This mobility of scale across the personal and the political is represented in an art installation consisting of 9,000 children’s backpacks designed by Ai Weiwei and displayed in Munich. Each bag represents a child killed in the earthquake, many in public schools which appear not to have met construction standards.

Xu narrates state response to protests and advocacy on the part of surviving parents, showing how their complaints were rejected first because “this is not the time” (a refrain not unfamiliar in our own political climate), and later because officials insisted that there was nothing wrong with the construction of the schools, no errors to rectify. Visibly moved, Xu showed photographs of a grassy mound off to the side of a memorial for the earthquake, little visited by tourists, at the site of a former elementary school. Covered with earth when the removal of corpses proved unfeasible, the number of dead beneath that space remains unknown, and their names unmarked.

While silencing some responses to the disaster, the state did manage to capitalize on others, using nation-wide and highly publicized rituals of public mourning to successfully repair its moral image in the lead-up to the Olympics, and facilitating lucrative corporate investment in the region during the recovery period, as civil society organizations found themselves increasingly marginalized.

The Politics of Compassion is out now with Stanford University Press, and offers a unique and impactful reading of compassion, disaster, politics and memory relevant to scholars across the humanities.

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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