The highway leading to Yingxiu, a small town near the epicenter of China's May 12 earthquake, is rent by fissures big enough to swallow a child and is choked with smashed trucks and enormous rocks. Near the town's outskirts, just past a car that has been crushed by a boulder, a landslide cuts off the road entirely. A mother who walked into the mountains beyond to bring out her 12-year-old son says he's been scarred by what he's seen. The landscape they are leaving behind is hellish, she says--putrefying bodies, collapsed schools, buried roads and rows of wrecked houses. But the situation doesn't faze two friends who have traveled here by train, car and, finally, on foot to help victims of the Wenchuan earthquake. Dressed in white T shirts reading I [heart] CHINA, the men are determined to reach the core of the devastation. "After we saw the news of the disaster, we decided we had to help," says Wu Guanglei, a 36-year-old high school physics teacher from Zigong, a town 186 miles (300 km) to the south. "We Chinese people are growing closer and closer together," says Wu Xiangping, 28, who took a leave from his job at a Beijing advertising firm to join the relief effort. "And because of that, the country's morality is rising too."

Photo: Survivors shelter in the Mianyang stadium. Ian Teh for TIME
Photo: Survivors shelter in the Mianyang stadium. Ian Teh for TIME

These simple observations, stated with a tinge of hope and pride, crystallize much of what China as a nation has learned about itself over the past two weeks. The 8.0-magnitude quake, the country's worst natural disaster in more than 30 years, has probably killed at least 50,000 and has left more than 5 million homeless, according to official sources. Horrific videos from the disaster zone--the twisted bodies of children layered like fossils in the sediment of a pancaked concrete schoolhouse, the desperate decision to amputate the legs of a dying girl pinned in rubble--forced the Chinese people to look into the abyss. And reflected was the image of a more compassionate nation than many had perhaps expected, where tens of millions of Chinese lined up for hours to make sure their donations of cash or food or clothes were accepted and where tens of thousands of others like the Wus left their jobs and families and rushed to aid their compatriots. The roads to the disaster zone were jammed with cars carrying banners that read RESIST THE QUAKE: PROVIDE RELIEF and WHEN ONE HAS DIFFICULTY, EIGHT ASSIST. The traffic was so overwhelming that authorities had to close the roads and turn back volunteers. So many clothes were contributed that they were piled in mounds six feet (two meters) high in some devastated towns. Within days, contributions from the country's private companies, not known for their charity, had hit a billion dollars and were still rising.

The outpouring of support has been a revelation. For years, China's citizens couldn't watch the evening news without being reminded of their darker side, of the grasping, reckless self-interest that has characterized China's headlong rush to become wealthy and powerful--stories of slave labor and child-kidnapping rings, rampant government corruption, counterfeit products, tainted food, dangerous toys and, lately, the brutal crackdown on dissent in Tibet. But from a monstrous humanitarian crisis has come a new self-awareness, a recognition of the Chinese people's sympathy and generosity of spirit. The earthquake has been a "shock of consciousness," as Wenran Jiang, a China scholar at the University of Alberta, puts it, a collective epiphany when the nation was suddenly confronted with how much it had changed in two decades of booming growth and how some changes have been for the better.

Of course, when the national emergency abates, much of China will revert to its familiar ways. But something fundamental has changed. There is a new confidence in the ability, even duty, of ordinary Chinese to contribute to building a more virtuous society and a willingness to press the government for the right to do so. Most of those volunteering were doing so for the first time, for example, and many said they were eager to do more community work in the future. Says Jiang: "It's a major leap forward in the formation of China's civil society, which is vital for China's future democratization process." That doesn't mean the Wenchuan earthquake will lead directly to elections in the next few years, but the complex and shifting relationship between the Communist Party and increasingly vociferous Chinese citizens will probably evolve into some form of compromise between autocratic control and Western-style democracy.

It's not just China's self-perception that has changed. The quake has altered, at least temporarily, the world's perception of China, whose growing economic and military might is viewed with suspicion and fear in many quarters. China's relationship with the democratic West has been particularly strained of late, after March's bloody demonstrations in Tibet and the chaotic protests that dogged the Olympic-torch relay. But the quake, coming just 10 days after Cyclone Nargis ripped into Burma, has cast the Chinese government in a different light. By blocking foreign aid, Burma's paranoid military junta demonstrated just how impotent and callous to the suffering of its citizens a repressive autocracy can be. But even Beijing's critics expressed admiration for China's swift response to the quake.

In turn, some of China's most xenophobic bloggers have expressed astonishment at the sympathy shown for China by the rest of the world, the donations of cash and goods and the dispatch of foreign search-and-rescue teams, doctors and other personnel. The outpouring of international goodwill "has changed everything," says a senior Western diplomat based in Beijing. "Now many people will be cheering for the Chinese and hoping they pull off a good show at the Olympics. That will be pivotal for China's self-confidence and its perception of its place in the world."

A Nation's Agony

If the crisis had a defining moment, it came on May 19 at 2:28 p.m., exactly a week after the quake. That was when the entire country paused for three minutes. Traffic came to a halt, flags were lowered to half-mast, and Chinese everywhere stood in oft tearful silence to honor the victims of the Wenchuan quake, named for the county at its epicenter. Drivers honked their horns, and factories sounded their sirens in a collective wail of agony. The ritual marked the start of three days of national mourning, during which Internet activities like online gaming were halted and all TV channels except those broadcasting news were blacked out.

This cathartic outpouring of national grief helped put to rest the notion that China lacks civic spirit. Academics have long argued that Confucian ideals, which emphasize duty to family, have mutated over the millenniums into a national mentality that views contributions to nonrelatives as a waste of precious personal resources. This trait was exaggerated by the beggar-thy-neighbor capitalism that has been Chinese society's driving force for the past two decades. Charitable donations from individuals and businesses in China amount to about 0.09% of the gdp, compared with 2% in the U.S.

But in the space of a few weeks, China has shown that not only do its people know how to grieve but they also know how to give. And the charity isn't coming from just private companies and wealthy citizens; many of those donating are poor Chinese making enormous sacrifices. Waiting patiently in line at the Red Cross Society of China office in Beijing on May 19 was Liang B
aoying, a 63-year-old retired teacher. Clutching an envelope containing the equivalent of $287--her monthly pension--Liang tearfully said she could no longer watch news of the quake on TV because it was too sad. "I believe this is a national tragedy, so we have no choice but to give. I'm sure the Red Cross will use the donation properly."

Thousands are doing even more. The China Youth Daily reported that an estimated 200,000 citizen volunteers from all over China have descended on the quake zone, providing food, shelter and medical treatment, their convoys of vehicles sometimes causing traffic jams on the narrow mountains roads of Sichuan province. Private aid takes many forms--beef trucked from Inner Mongolia, sleeping bags shipped from Shenzhen, building materials from Chongqing, millions of bottles of water and packets of instant noodles. Volunteers are working in areas overlooked by government relief efforts. In the village of Yongan, south of the devastated city of Beichuan, quake victims, from the very young to the very old, line the road, waiting for the citizen cavalry to arrive. "We're counting on volunteers to bring us food," says Wang Shaoqing, 82. As he speaks, children run up to the cars of volunteers, who stop and hand them food and water bottles through the windows.

The dedication of the volunteers has been covered in the state media with almost the same enthusiasm that's been given to the performance of the 120,000 People's Liberation Army troops and paramilitary police officers in the disaster area. The normally muzzled Chinese press has been freed by the information ministry to saturate the airwaves with quake coverage. The leash on the Internet was also loosened. Popular blogs have been uncensored; commentators posting to mainstream discussion forums were even allowed to criticize the government's handling of some aspects of the relief--the failure to use helicopters for the first three days after the quake, for example.

As surprising as the freedom is the sophistication of the coverage. It's on television and radio round the clock, and newspapers have put out special editions. An anchor even dressed down a reporter on air for broadcasting from the comfort of her hotel room rather than venturing into the field. "Three to five years ago, both the state media and the online world simply wouldn't have had the energy, experience or skill to do coverage on this scale," says Xiao Qiang, a Chinese-media expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's going to progress just as much in the next three to five years too. It's not going to be total media freedom, but it is a big step in the empowerment of China's civil society."

Unlikely Hero, Familiar Villains

One of the most widely praised aspects of the relief operation was the speed and scale with which the government responded. And to Chinese and foreigners alike, the man primarily responsible for that was the country's Premier, Wen Jiabao, 65. Within two hours of the earthquake, Wen was on a plane to the disaster area, and for the next four days, Chinese TV was flooded with images of the increasingly exhausted-looking leader as he rallied the relief forces, offered succor to survivors and even choked up.

Wen has long been the human face of the Communist Party. Netizens responded rapturously. "I couldn't help crying when I saw the pictures of Premier Wen in the stricken region," wrote a poster in a typical comment. "I feel very safe to have a wonderful leader like this." The praise will reassure the party hierarchy. Having long since discarded their Marxist-Leninist ideology, China's leaders are increasingly dependent on the approval of the public for their legitimacy; the survival of the party may ultimately depend on its handling of crises.

Wen's star turn notwithstanding, the real danger to the party comes from its rotten base: the county and township officials whose corruption and venality have had the greatest impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese. There's sure to be a backlash over the number of children killed by the quake, buried in their classrooms as shoddily built schools collapsed around them. In the days following the quake, blogs and online message boards teemed with demands for answers as to why so many schools were destroyed. In one structure alone--the three-story Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan--at least 600 students died. "It was built out of tofu," says Hu Yuefu, 44, of the building that collapsed and killed his 15-year-old daughter Huishans. He holds local government officials and building contractors responsible. "I hope there is an investigation," Hu says. "Otherwise, there are a thousand parents who would beat them to death."

Corruption has proved an inflammatory issue in the past--it was one of the driving forces behind the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989--and mixed with student deaths, it could be explosive. Beijing's first instinct will be to sweep the schools scandal under the rug. Much of the online anger over the collapsed schools has been deleted, and all discussion of the topic has been banned. But the University of Alberta's Jiang says that as China's civil society develops, leaders know they must adapt. "It will be extremely tempting for the control types and ideologues to use the earthquake to glorify the party and to direct this new openness toward reporting only good news," he says. "But that will be one step backward out of two steps forward--no more."

It's hard to see how Beijing can stifle the civic impulses of the millions of Chinese who have been stirred into action by the humanitarian crisis. The earthquake has exposed how much China has changed and given a fleeting glimpse of what might be. The political and cultural aftershocks will roll on for years after the ground has ceased to tremble.

With reporting by With Reporting by Austin Ramzy, Lin Yang/Yingxiu

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