This article also appears on http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/63907.
The whole China stopped for three minutes, people, work, traffic, with everybody standing in silence, heads bowed, with only sirens wailing and horns blaring, from Beijing to Nanjing, from Qinghai to Shanghai.
That was on September 18, 1976, the national day of mourning for Mao who had died nine days earlier. I was an intern at a company in Xi'an. All of us, employees and interns, walked in pouring rain from the eastern suburbs to the city proper to our designated spot to stand in for the national ceremony.
It was dark and gloomy, the sky or the crowd. I remember feeling scared, scared of the unknown and the uncertainty of what might become of China without Mao, for Mao had been what China had since 1949, a ruthless dictator or a utopian communist...
Thirty-two years later, on May 19, 2008, the whole China stopped again for three minutes, people, work, traffic, etc. This time, the country was mourning the 60,000 victims of the Sichuan earthquake. And this time, I was not there. I watched it on the Internet.
If there is any benefit in watching anything from afar, it is the truth behind this Chinese saying, "The spectator sees more clearly." Besides the profound sadness I shared with the mourners, there was something else I saw clearly: a different China.
In 1976, China was in its tenth year of Mao's mad Cultural Revolution. With a decade of "great victories of the Mao Zedong thought" and the policy of "self-reliance and no debt, foreign or domestic," China had nothing to show for it. Its economy was at the brink of collapse. Its masses had been subsisting more on revolutionary fervor than any material goods. The only "strong and prosperous socialist motherland" was in the propaganda.
So when the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century hit Tangshan, an industrial city of Hebei province, killing over 200,000 people in July that year, the Chinese government just couldn't let the world or its own people see it, or rather the poverty it revealed. There were no news reports, no television images, no foreign aid accepted, and no foreign journalists allowed. The only earthquake tale I heard was from a college schoolmate who had lost both her mother and sister in that early morning nightmare. There was later, of course, the national mourning that I attended, but it was for Mao.
Three decades are a long time. But today's China is three decades better. If the country was all about Mao in 1976, it is all about the masses in 2008.
First, there was Mr. Wen Jiabao, dubbed "the People's Premier," arriving at the Ground Zero of the earthquake within three hours to comfort the hurting masses; right behind him were the massive military troops moving in to search, rescue and evacuate the masses; along with them was the massive media coverage, from newspaper to television to the Internet, telling the world about the losses and the suffering of the masses; then there were the masses from all over China donating money, blood and clothes, volunteering for relief work, and offering to adopt the earthquake orphans.
With this historic contrast of giving all the attention to the masses in 2008 against giving all the attention to Mao in 1976, one couldn't miss another parallel difference in China today: its new openness.
Along with the Chinese journalists, Chinese medical teams, Chinese relief supplies and Chinese donations, we have seen foreign journalists, foreign medical teams, foreign relief supplies and foreign donations playing active roles in the post-quake China. No more refusing foreign aid as after Tangshan. No more hiding tragedy as in the SARS breakout.
American presidential candidates like to say, the election is not about me, it is about you, the American people. After Sichuan, especially in China's national mourning, second in its history, we have witnessed a new China emerging in that spirit: one that is not about its leader(s), but about its masses.
This change is of both political and cultural significance. It is one from Mao to the masses and from the leader(s) to the led. It is also one from a "family" that cares more about its reputation to one that cares more about the welfare of its members. For the Chinese had always believed that one from a "family shame," disasters and poverty included, should always be hidden.
What happened in Tiananmen Square immediately after the three minutes?silence also indicated the change. Besides "Don't cry, Sichuan!" "Be strong, Wenchuan," the mourners also chanted, "Long live China!" It was not only a different slogan from "Long lives Chairman Mao!" of years ago, it was also a different crowd from June 4, 1989.