Earthquake shakes spirits

From the window of my Beijing office, everything seems normal.  Traffic is jammed on the ring road near my building, humidity and pollution are mixing to block out the clean blue sky of the morning, everyone is keeping their noses to the grindstone.

Two days ago, the entire country was shaken by an earthquake that originated several kilometres under  Wenchuan county, Sichuan province – over 1500km southwest from Beijing.  Yet even here, around 2:30 in the afternoon, everyone in Beijing office buildings first wondered why felt like their heads were spinning, then realized that their entire buildings were swaying.

It took about half an hour to understand the scope of the event from a trickle of messages on mobile phones as we stood in parking lots scattered around Beijing, waiting for someone to say that it was safe to go back to our offices (of course, this information couldn’t be forthcoming).

I get the feeling now that it wasn’t just the buildings that had shaken across China with this earthquake, though – it feels like the national psyche has also taken a bit of a hit.

It’s the word on the street: 2008, the olympic year, isn’t turning out to be that great for China.  At first, it was my colleagues and friends listing the tragedies: Hand, foot and mouth disease, train collisions, the torch relay protests, Tibet protests, and now this earthquake.  Then I even started to see it in the news.

The casualty list is climbing in this tragedy.  Response has been hampered by bad weather in Sichuan (immediately following the earthquake, heavy rains prevented flying over the region), extreme mountainous topography, a collaposed transportation network and any other bad luck you can imagine.  The army has been reported to be lacking in equipment that can help fish people out of the collapsed buildings.

We have also seen an unprecedented opening of hearts and wallets in support of the people who have suffered the worst of the earthquake.  Reports indicate that hundreds of millions of RMB have already been received by the Chinese Red Cross Society and other responsible organizations.  Significant donations have also been received from Hong Kong and Taiwan companies and individuals.  “Donation” is a word on the minds of every person in China, it seems.  I expect that support from overseas – and in particular, overseas Chinese - will not be small.

I have started thinking.  It has been an unlucky year so far for China.  But one thing that all these events have accomplished is a “gelling” of Chinese people both in China and around the world.  I think that people who long emigrated from China to the West are starting to get a feeling for what China has become again, and a feeling for being Chinese again.  I suspect that this will have enormous implications in the years to come as all people of Chinese ethnicity find a new identity – particularly in countries that have relied on immigration such as Canada, the US, Australia and others Southeast Asia.

As we watch this tragedy unfold in Sichuan province, and wish the survivors an orderly recovery, let’s start to consider long-term implications of the increasing national feelings that Chinese people everywhere seem to be demonstrating.

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