Book Review: Bin Xu, The Politics of Compassion

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. summer 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 1.


Bin Xu The Politics of Compassion: the Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (2017, Stanford University Press).

Reviewed by Lily Liang (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens rushed to the southwestern province of Sichuan in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 earthquake that killed 87,150 people including 5,335 schoolchildren. The citizens’ volunteerism based on their beliefs of altruism, compassion, and self-fulfillment supports the Thomas theorem. However, Bin Xu’s The Politics of Compassion: the Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (2017, Stanford University Press) does more than show how the meanings we assign to our actions shape the outcomes of those actions. Using a combination of interviews, field observations, archival and secondary materials, Xu provides the political, structural, situational, and historical contexts to understand how Chinese people practice civic engagement under authoritarianism; specifically, in four moments of China’s largest disaster relief to date.

Initially, the scale of the devastation caused by the earthquake overwhelmed the state’s disaster relief capacity. Xu shows how the consensus between state and society on the priority of saving lives created a “situational opening” (p. 51) for civic engagement. For a time, the state allowed civic associations to help with the distribution of donations and aid. This state-society partnership garnered the Chinese government much-needed positive publicity in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, when protests in Tibet and disruptions along the international torch relay had tarnished China’s image.

A few days into the rescue effort, the state accepted proposals to organize a public mourning for the earthquake victims. Xu stresses how this act was unprecedented. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) had survived deadlier disasters. But the first time the PRC had ever lowered the national flag and observed a moment of silence for ordinary citizens was for the Sichuan earthquake victims. Xu argues that, “the flow of [recent] events and structural conditions” (p. 95) had put the state between a rock and a hard place. The state could not have opened up the public sphere and asked its citizens to show compassion while rejecting public demands for it to show compassion. The state had to shore up its moral legitimacy by mourning the Sichuan victims. 

After the initial openness, the state started to restrict civic engagement. Xu shows how the recovery effort’s political landscape left little room for civic organizations. Government-sanctioned NGOs once more took charge of managing and allocating donations. Local governments began to partner with real estate developers to rebuild the devastated areas. Xu argues the early state-society partnership during the rescue period had not fundamentally changed their relationship. Civic organizations serve at the pleasure of the Chinese state. Xu captures the powerlessness of individual volunteers, showing that even in private they would not discuss the man-made causes of the numerous school collapses that killed more than 5,000 children.

A year after the disaster, society lost access to the political opportunity structure. Xu reminds us of the repressive political contexts that discouraged all but a “tiny public” of dissidents, liberal intellectuals, and ordinary citizens from translating their compassion into activism, specifically into campaigns to collect the names of schoolchildren who died. In opportune moments the state could tolerate civic engagement as volunteerism but never as activism. For their name-collecting activism, the dissident Tan Zuoren received a five-year prison sentence and the artist Ai Weiwei was detained by the authorities.

The Politics of Compassion shows that Chinese citizens’ beliefs about compassion may have driven them to do their part in the disaster relief, but authoritarian political contexts ultimately define their civic engagement. Volunteers’ inability to deal with larger, political issues limits the meanings they assign to their actions. One of the saddest moments in the book is when Xu describes how volunteers would gush about their love for the children who survived but stay mute about the school collapses that killed their classmates. What’s left unsaid, hanging heavily in the air, speaks volumes about individual efficacy in Chinese civil society. Xu has captured all this and more in his book. The Politics of Compassion is a valuable read for sociologists who wish to understand the interplay between culture and politics in China today.