The Politics of Compassion: The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China

Time: Sept. 22, 2017, 1:00pm - 2:00pm

Location: Modern Languages 201

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed 87,000 people and left 5 million homeless. In response to the devastation, an unprecedented
wave of volunteers and civic associations streamed into Sichuan to offer help. The Politics of Compassion examines how civically engaged citizens acted on the ground, how they understood the meaning of their actions, and how the political climate shaped their actions and understandings. Using extensive data from interviews, observations, and textual materials, Bin Xu shows that the large-scale civic engagement was not just a natural outpouring of compassion, but also a complex social process, both enabled and constrained by the authoritarian political ontext. While volunteers expressed their sympathy toward the affected people's suffering, many avoided explicitly talking about the causes of the suffering—particularly in the case of the collapse of thousands of schools. Xu shows that this silence and apathy is explained by a general inability to discuss politically sensitive issues while living in a repressive state. This
book is a powerful account of how the widespread death and suffering caused by the earthquake illuminates the moral-political dilemma faced by Chinese
citizens and provides a window into the world of civic engagement in contemporary China.

About the speaker

Bin Xu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Emory University. I received my Ph.D. in Sociology from Northwestern University.

His research interests are situated at two intersections. The first intersection is within the disciplinary boundary of sociology: between cultural sociology and political sociology. The second intersection is between two broader “fields”: general sociology and China studies. His primary identity is a cultural/political sociologist, but he also has enjoyed the cross-fertilization between sociology as a general social science and China studies as a field of area studies. Xu's ultimate intellectual goal is also twofold: to develop generalizable knowledge without sacrificing a sensitivity to context-specific processes and local knowledge; to address important public issues without losing scientific rigor and intellectual depth.