Paul Jacob

The Sichuan earthquake saddens and terrifies. The extent of the devastation is hard to grasp. One aid worker put it this way: "The enormity of it is far bigger than anything I have seen before."

That word, enormity, finally used correctly.

The fact that the devastation happened in a country recently quite poor, with a heritage of poorly built infrastructure, made the earthquake's devastation that much worse than it would have been had it occurred in our land. But that is just a fact of life; it would be indecent to make too much of it.

Governments seem made to serve especially in time of emergencies (no matter how badly they work at it, here and elsewhere), and we see that in China. Further, the effects of increased reliance on and demand for government services may have unfortunate repercussions in China for some time. But against this speculation into further disaster, it is worth noting that the Chinese government seems far more responsible than ours. Whereas we in America expect government assistance without cost, the Chinese government quickly demanded that all departments trim their budgets by five percent to help pay for the reconstruction required.

There you have it: An understanding of cost at the governmental level, the political level. In one way, at least, Chinese politicians appear more responsible than Americans ones.

But the aspect of human society that stands out in the recent catastrophe can be summed up in one word: charity. And I do not refer to the expected outpouring of worldwide relief efforts. I refer to something far more momentous: charity from the Chinese themselves.

The Chinese people have not been known for their charity in the past. Tragedies happen with a sort of dull regularity. And the indifference of the masses of the Chinese people has been the typical response.

Not this time.

The Chinese people have rallied as never before, supplying physical aid in terms of action, transportation, food and medicine, and spiritual aid in countless other ways.

"I haven't done this before," said one man, a psychologist, who had traveled by plane and bike to get to the devastated region. "Ordinary people now understand how to take action on their own."

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.