Disaster, Not Olympics Fuels Patriotism in China

What the Olympics couldn't do, the earthquake in China accomplished. I do not mean the terrible death and destruction, of course, but the wave of sympathy and patriotism in its wake that is now sweeping over China. Suddenly, China is experiencing something new - and yet strangely reminiscent of another era, when everyone wore Mao's jacket and marched to the same tune.

Donations are pouring in from all corners. Companies and individuals are giving millions of dollars, and volunteerism is rising fast. It's as if the Great Leap Forward is happening now and not in the 60's.

For years, Beijing planned carefully for the 2008 Olympics. Construction continued night and day. Sports, after all, in the age of capitalism and individualism, is arguably the only unifying element in Chinese society, and Beijing pulled out all stops to make the Olympics the most glorious event that it can possibly be - a top-down, well orchestrated, well oiled propaganda machine to empower the state. It also served as a calling card for China as an empire coming of age.

But this excitement has been largely restricted to the big cities. Far from Beijing, especially in rural areas, many Chinese whose lives are mired in poverty, who live hand to mouth, couldn't care less about the glory of the Olympics that will take place in the capital.

The earthquake, on the other hand, was literally felt by half of the population, and the accompanying tragedies now stir the entire nation. On TV, visions of Chinese holding hands, singing, weeping and promising to rebuild show a kind of unity that no amount of money or government orchestration could have imagined. It is bottom-up. It is organic.

What the state did right in this case was, first and foremost, allowing transparency in the media. Officials spoke frankly and the people's criticism was not muzzled. Images of suffering beamed directly on TV and computer screens in every Chinese household and, inevitably, everywhere else.

The devastation and horror broadcast around the world captured the heart and shocked the mind. A school, filmed a few days before the earthquake, showed students laughing and playing games. The aftermath is an instant mass grave. Bodies pulled from the rubble. Children weeping.

While in Myanmar, we get tidbits of news and images of a cyclone-ravaged region, in China we watch a 24-7 news cycle, including reports from citizen journalists. The enormity of the suffering and losses are deeply felt the world over.

The Chinese army, too, finally looked like the people's army, helping with rescue efforts and creating order - in stark contrast to what the army did to students and workers protesting in Tianamen Square in 1989.

The earthquake also accomplished something else that the Olympics couldn't, despite the estimated $5.7 billion being poured into the staging and promotion of events: All critical voices of China have softened, become muted, and China suddenly seems like a real country with real people and not a global menace.

Nearly everywhere the Olympic torch went, there were protests. All of the grievances against China, such as its relationship to Darfur and Tibet, were lit and stoked by the torch. But those issues have died down now with the enormous suffering wrought by the earthquake in the central region of China.

In China, it is often said that when the rulers are no longer fit, they lose heaven's mandate, and the land experiences natural calamities. In this case, it might be that things are happening in the reverse. The rulers were losing steam and were hoping to rely on a foreign idea -- the Olympic Games -- to energize and unify their country. But the heavens, apparently, had a different idea.


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