05/19/2008 04:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

China's Earthquake: Unleashing A New Civil Spirit?

2008, China's "glory year," has not been kind. The news has been chockablock with train wrecks, bus explosions and mining disasters. Freak snowstorms paralyzed half the country, stranding millions in dingy, dank train stations. And, last week's earthquake in Sichuan province, the largest natural disaster to strike the mainland in more than 30 years, killed more than 50,000 people. Has China gone off the rails?

Many Western pundits question whether this string of misfortune will break the spirit of the Chinese, particularly as the entire nation gears up for the Olympics, a once-in-a-millenium extravaganza that should have unleashed epic pride. And there's no question that that the anti-Chinese, pro-Tibet protests, staged from Paris to San Francisco, have put a "black mark" over the Games. Regardless of how many golds China wins or how impressed foreigners are with Beijing's genuinely stunning new airport, the Olympics cannot be an unmitigated success.

That said, recent adversity has brought out the best in the Chinese -- i.e., a fierce resilience and unity of spirit. It has also triggered expression of genuine empathy, not China's hallmark, for the earthquake victims.

National determination, particularly when the chips are down, has always the country's greatest resource. Ming emperors called on millions to rebuild the Great Wall when the dyanasty was threatened by nomadic incursion from the North. During the 1930s, the Communist and Nationalist parties, enemies even today, put aside their differences to resist Japanese invasion. When SARS threatened the PRC's economic miracle, everyone, from neighborhood aunties to bosses of state-owned enterprises, mobilized to squash the disease.

China believes that unity -- ningju li or cohesion -- is tantamount to survival. And, make no mistake, the central government's (patriarchical) legitimacy hinges on maintaining order and stability. After the quake, authorities are firmly in the driver's seat. Relief efforts, despite gargantuan logistical hurdles, have been impressive by any standard. An outpouring of national grief has been meticulously choreographed. China has officially declared three days of national mourning, concurrently banning any entertainment program. Today, at 2:28 pm, the Middle Kingdom observed three minutes of silence; our office's hyper-kinetic pulse suddenly stopped...and then, with metronomic precision, restarted. Media coverage has been a blend of "managed transparency" -- every day, the death toll climbs by a few thousand -- and propagandistic tales of inspiring heroism. The powers-that-be even mandated the Torch Run slogan be changed. The celebratory "Light the passion, spread the dream" has been toned down to a subdued-yet-resolute "Spread the holy flame, contribute caring love."

Is the government sincere? From the famine unleashed by the Great Leap Forward to the persecution of millions during the Cutural Revolution, not to mention what is still euphemistically referred to as the 1989 Tiananmen "incident," the Communist Party has been responsible for some of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. In its bid to maintain exclusive power, is a hypocritical, self-aggrandizing government playing the emotions of its citizenry?

Perhaps a bit, yes.

But, as someone who has lived on the mainland for more than a decade, I have been surprised and moved by genuine, bottom-up concern for the well-being of victims and their families, strangers they may be. While watching a memorial television program with a few local friends, quiet tears were shed, not the manufactured strum and dirge one usually encounters during most official mourning. At JWT, employees spontaneously organized a charity drive to rebuild a school in one of the shattered villages. A group of digital media technology researchers from Jiao Tong University, working together with a Sichuan technician, have succeeded in sending out a TV signal so refugees in tents can watch state television and local TV programs. The Shanghai Hope Project Office is prepared to accept 500 orphans from the quake-stricken areas. And, in the first two days after the quake, China's Red Cross collected about 180 million yuan ($26 million), mostly from individuals, impressive for a country not prone to providing charity to strangers.

How has this happened? Has China discovered a new spirit of generosity, one presaging the emergence of a truly civil society? Not yet. A ruthlessly competitive, money-hungry mindset still characterizes many middle class Chinese. However, the country and its people are making progress. In this case, bottom-up empathy has been heightened by two "new" influences. First, the internet has been harnessed to fuel both emotions and cash drives. Tales of agony and trimuph, told be real people rather than proganda mouthpieces, are spreading through cyberspace, inspiring millions of new generation netizens to give to a far-away cause. Second, the flow of information from the government has been, relatively speaking, factual and fast. (The openness is in marked contrast to how officials handled the Tibetan riots.) Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's immediate, ubiquitously-broadcast trek through quake wreckage convinced the nation that the disaster was tian zai (i.e., an act of "heaven"), not ren huo (i.e., caused by official malfeasance or inefficiency) and, therefore, a "worthy" national rallying cry. A fresh, non-Orwellian style has been embraced by millions, a lesson the government will, hopefully, not forget.

Facilitated by modern technology and a less defensive government, China's tradition of surmounting adversity has been turbocharged on an epic scale. In the process, the country may emerge stronger, more confident, less prickly. Even the Olympic Torch Run may morph from an off-putting nationalistic victory lap to a noble declaration of perseverence. Ironically, Olympic glory, always threatened by braggadocio, may be delivered by disaster. Can anyone not be touched by a nation resolved to overcome woe and stand up again?

Opportunity and inspiration really are borne of crisis.

Read more HuffPost coverage of China and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games