BEIJING (Reuters) - By the time 2008 ends, Wang Junbo joked during a sweltering afternoon in China’s earthquake zone, he and other young Chinese will have seen enough suffering, conflict and drama to retire early and write their memoirs.
“Maybe they’ll call us the Olympics generation. Probably we should be the Wenchuan generation,” he said, referring to the epicenter of the devastating quake in southwest China’s Sichuan province, where he and thousands of others volunteered to help.
Wang’s belief that this year’s cascade of crises, especially the quake, has been an initiation rite for Chinese born after 1980 is widely shared. And it could leave a deep impression on a nation where the ruling Communist Party has warily faced its youth raised on global capitalism, Internet and text messaging.
“For us, it’s been a chance to show we’re not just kids who grew up pampered and useless,” said Wang, a slight 19-year-old, who took time off from a university course in English to work in a temporary tent hospital for quake refugees in Mianzhu, Sichuan.
Since January, China has endured a paralyzing cold snap, riots and unrest in Tibetan areas and nationalist protests against Western governments, groups and companies accused of sympathizing with Tibetan independence and with demonstrators who disrupted the international leg of the Olympic torch relay. And then the calamitous quake shook the country on May 12.
At another time, shocks like these may have fed mass discontent, possibly fanned by university students who have often led the way in challenging government in modern China.
But far from shaking political stability, this year’s tumult has so far stirred a surge of patriotism likely to help the Party, especially among a young generation with dim, textbook-fed impressions of Mao, Marx and the nation’s much poorer past.
“I think these experiences are going to have a shaping role for this next generation,” said Fang Ning, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has studied youth nationalism and also advised top government leaders.
“It’s been like a baptism for them. It won’t completely transform their worldview, but it has helped crystallize a kind of collective mentality ... A new patriotism is certainly an important element of that.”
Close to 19 years after Chinese soldiers shot anti-government protesters near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, killing hundreds, a dramatically different mood dominated the square last month.
After the nation paused for three somber minutes on May 19 to mourn those killed in the earthquake a week earlier, thousands of students and citizens on the Square — most too young to even vaguely recall 1989 — erupted into passionate patriotic chants.
They marched with red flags across the vast square, shouted “Go China Go,” roared out the national anthem.
That fervent patriotism, many students said, was the shared thread between their response to the quake and their earlier protests against Western media, companies and governments accused of supporting Tibetan independence.
In a survey of 2,648 residents by the China Society of Economic Reform in late May, 92.4 percent said their image of the government had improved after the quake and 98 percent said the experience had strengthened “national cohesion.”
“All these events have made us feel more confident in our country, more patriotic,” said Lai Yangyun, a lanky 21-year-old forestry student.
Lai had backed the mass campaign to boycott French supermarket giant Carrefour after the Olympic torch relay in Paris was disrupted by protesters opposing Chinese rule in Tibet. Recently, he donated clothes, blood and money for quake victims.
“The protests about the Paris Olympic torch relay showed how patriotic we could be. But the earthquake was much more profound, because it was about why we should care about the country.”
Past generations of Chinese have also been galvanized by nationalism. But the recent outpouring has reflected a new, sometimes prickly assertiveness, said Kang Xiaoguang, a political analyst at Renmin University in Beijing.
“The past nationalist protests reflected distrust of the government and insecurity about the government’s intentions and China’s power,” said Kang.
“This time a sense of national identity has been much strengthened. I think it’s the first time in 30 years that we’ve seen such a broad identification between the state and people.”
This sharpened sense of public purpose has been allied to the spread of self-organized aid-giving efforts — a striking turn in an authoritarian country where charities are strictly controlled.
While millions donated to the Red Cross and other big official charities, many have also organized their own charity collections, driven convoys of deliveries to remote towns, and poured into tent camps for quake victims.
Responding to the quake was a “baptism” for students unused to working outside official confines, said Zhang Wei, who founded an “alliance” of 200 students from the quake zone in the national capital working to gather and disperse aid.
“The 80s generation has always had this image of being spoilt only children who didn’t care and couldn’t get things done,” said Li Tong, a manager at the Mao Live nightclub in Beijing who has organized a series of benefit concerts for the quake.
“It’s been a shock to many people to see how young people have thrown themselves into quake relief,” she said. “In a sense, it’s been a shock to ourselves.”
Keeping this upwelling of patriotic fervor and public participation in check could test Party leaders, who distrust any spontaneous social gatherings, even those supporting them.
The public concern fostered by the quake may also amplify public scrutiny over reconstruction efforts and the resettlement of quake refugees. The Chinese public has already shown acute sensitivity to post-quake corruption exposed by an emboldened domestic media.
“People’s expectations have also risen. They want to see aid used in a more fully transparent and accountable way,” said Zhang Tuo, a business student in Beijing who has been organizing quake aid. “If it’s not, the response will be real anger.”
The public mood could also sour as questions mount over the many schools wiped out by the quake, killing thousands of children, while often nearby government buildings stayed upright.
At a recent quake benefit concert in the Mao Live nightclub, guitarist-singer Dong Zi ended his set with a song lamenting the flattened schools made from “tofu dregs.”
“We also want to make sure that those corrupt officials and black-hearted businesspeople who built those schools suffer harsh punishment,” Dong said later. “That’s our responsibility too.”
Editing by Megan Goldin