Heroes and villains
One consequence of the Sichuan earthquake is that the response to it has been like holding up a mirror to mainland society. What's being reflected is both good and bad. On the negative side, there are the loathsome scam merchants who have set up bogus websites, or who send fake text messages, claiming to be relief agencies or penniless survivors. Then there are the conspiracy theorists spreading specious reasons about the causes of the quake.
But they are far outnumbered by those who have responded in a positive fashion to the plight of those in the earthquake zone. Tens of thousands of people are working as volunteers in the affected areas and many more are donating money and supplies. In a pleasant contrast to the ugly nationalism that has so far dominated the year, a new, selfless spirit of volunteerism has emerged in the past two weeks.
It's particularly prevalent among the young. With age on their side, they are the ones driving the dangerous roads in Sichuan, delivering aid to people who have yet to receive any from the overwhelmed authorities. Most are doing it on their own initiative. I hitched a ride out of Beichuan, one of the worst-hit places, with four young men from Mianyang who had been taking water to the isolated villages in the area. They were doing so with the financial support of their employer, but it was their idea.
Vociferous netizens have played their part, too, by shaming some companies into making substantial donations to the relief fund. Mainland firms have a poor record of contributing to charities. Just 1 per cent of the nation's 10 million registered companies do so. That has changed since May 12.
Many have also been less than impressed by the response of some of China's biggest names, who seemed to be trying to outdo each other with their donations while being quick to publicise their philanthropy. Some netizens doubted the sincerity of these contributions, or chastised those that appeared too stingy.
Basketball star Yao Ming rapidly raised the amount he gave from 500,000 yuan to 2 million yuan (HK$563,000 to HK$2.24 million) after people questioned why he had given so little. A few celebrities themselves have been scathing about their fellow stars' actions. Han Han, the popular author and racing driver, used his blog to denounce the one-upmanship. Instead of making a donation he, like kung fu star Jet Li , headed to the earthquake zone to work as a volunteer.
It remains to be seen whether the spirit of thinking about those who are worse off will last. But even if companies revert to their usual policy of ignoring the disadvantaged, the volunteers on the ground will not. Anyone who has seen the scale of the crisis cannot be unaffected by it. The earthquake may be remembered for the way it changed mainland society for the better.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist