On May 12, 2008, a massive earthquake rocked central Sichuan, killing 87,000 people and leaving five million homeless in the second worst natural disaster in China’s modern history (the first was the Tangshan earthquake of 1976). As news of the event spread, hundreds of thousands of volunteers poured into Sichuan from all over China to help wherever they were needed. Many cooked, cleaned, and cared for survivors, but the sudden explosion of civic engagement also led to more politically oriented activities, as the magnitude of the tragedy forced an emotional confrontation with the deeper causes of the destruction beyond the violence of the quake itself. In a new book The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China, sociologist and China expert Bin Xu examines the ways in which civic engagement unfolded in the aftermath of the earthquake, and what these developments reveal about China’s evolving civil society. Drawing on extensive interviews and documentary research, Dr. Xu challenges many of the popular narratives about the national outpouring of compassion, and illustrates the tension between volunteering and activism. Dr. Xu joined the National Committee on January 31, 2018, for a discussion of his book and China’s civil society with NCUSCR Vice President Jan Berris.  

Bin Xu is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Emory University. His research interests lie at the intersection of politics and culture. He is currently writing a book on the collective memory of China’s “educated youth” (zhiqing) generation—the 17 million Chinese youth sent down to the countryside in the 1960s and 1970s. His research has appeared in leading sociology and China studies journals, including Theory & Society, Sociological Theory, Social Problems, Social Psychology Quarterly, China Quarterly, and The China Journal.  Dr. Xu is a fellow in the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program.

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