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Will increasing wealth spur moral progress in China?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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."

This upwelling of aid from neighboring areas has been noted in numerous news stories. You can read about them in the papers and on the Net, and see the pictures and interviews on TV. According to one report,

Outside the earthquake zone in Sichuan, the public response has grown exponentially. Exact figures change daily, but donations from Chinese citizens and companies have already surpassed the $500 million allocated by the government, according to state media. Some donations have been big, with Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong millionaire, giving $14 million, while schoolchildren have donated the equivalent of pennies.

From the news stories it is obvious: The charity has been spontaneous as well as concerted. The relief effort has been spurred by both tears and steely determination.

For once, one can watch the news and feel a bit good about being human in the modern world. People helping people in time of great distress: Heroism hardly gets any better. The heroism of masses of normal individuals and families — it is truly inspiring.

The level of charity may be new in China, but it is not unprecedented.

The precedent?


We see such private charity arise to this extent mostly in our own country. Oh, it happens around the world, throughout (especially) the first world, but few nations give as Americans give. Yes, I know: Europeans give, too. But an amazing amount of European giving is "government giving." In America, it is our people who give. Not out of a sense of "justice," dutifully extracted from taxes and directed by politicians, but out of compassion and generosity.

Charity begins at home.

And, when it does, it tends to end up where it is needed, rather than in the pockets of potentates or gangs.

I am often critical of China. The inheritors of Communist tyranny regularly offend against the lives and liberties of their people. But there have been, for many years now, flickers of hope. Now those flickers fan into undeniable flame. It is the people themselves who inspire that hope. They are wealthy enough, now, to extend their empathy and compassion to their neighbors and countryfolk, effectively to take on a civilized concern for others.

Could it be that a certain level of wealth, almost alone, spurs this sort of compassion? The principle is not hard to understand: The wealthier you get, the more your most pressing needs are met, the more you have left over to meet pressing needs of others.

Or has it been their graspings at freedom — particularly freedom to work for their own families — that contributed into their calculus of charity?

Whichever it is, the increased wealth, or the increased freedoms, that spur the charity, it is worth celebrating it when we see it. And of course no one factor accounts for all. Alan Qiu, a Shanghai investor, puts it like this: "We grew up reciting Confucius saying that all men are born kind, but it takes a disaster like this to bring out the innate kindness of everyday human beings."

And is it too much to hope that, as time goes on, the taste for freedom and wealth — and, uh, Confucian virtue — will grow, so as to counter the disaster that is their government?

That remains to be seen. But now there's more reason for our hope.

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