The earthquake that struck Sichuan Province on May 12 numbed the entire country and all those who care about China and its people. Within days, the numbers of dead, injured, missing, and displaced mounted, and the world turned sympathetically to offer aid to the suffering areas. The devastation took on huge proportions: at least 70,000 lost their lives, including a large number of schoolchildren crushed in their classrooms. With the ensuing aftershocks, the danger of flooding and further destruction lingered, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated to safer ground. Many in the worst-hit areas still remain unaccounted for.

The earthquake understandably disrupted a number of important events in China, among them the relay of the Olympic Torch. After weaving along its route of early stumbles overseas, the torch had finally landed on mainland soil and was being carried through southern China when the tremors hit. Olympic officials halted the run for several days, and plans were made for the torch to go through Sichuan in August. In a sense, the altered route was a sacrifice for Olympic organizers, since the re-routing to Sichuan cut the torch’s high-profile visit through Tibet to just a single day.

The tragedy in Sichuan had all but stilled discussion of China’s human rights record, and issues that have offended the country’s pride, particularly the treatment of Tibetans, were tabled. The torch’s parade through Lhasa in late June, which had been anticipated to rouse global condemnation, instead passed with little criticism from overseas. An international community that only this spring had been so critical of China was pouring its unbridled goodwill and compassion—and a great amount of humanitarian resources—to an injured friend.

A question not openly asked at the time was how Chinese authorities would respond to politically sensitive situations, such as any related to human rights, that might emerge in the period of recovery. Concerns sprouted up quickly, when mourners demanded to know whether official corruption led to faulty construction of school buildings that had collapsed. Having already failed to deliver on many pre-Olympic human rights pledges, China was confronting increased unrest among its own citizens, in areas stricken by the quake and elsewhere. Over the course of a few short weeks, decisions by authorities would invite judgment of how the ideal of a “harmonious society,” a key focus of the coming Olympics and China’s overall development, might possibly be nurtured around so much turmoil.

China Opens Its Arms
Right after the earthquake, openness by Chinese officials not only comforted the country’s people but also spiked Beijing’s sinking image abroad. In welcoming outside offers of aid and mobilizing extensive relief missions, Chinese leaders were credited with running a relatively efficient rescue effort. Assistance came from neighbors with whom Beijing has had contentious relations, such as Japan and Taiwan, and supplies, food, and funds came in from around the globe. Premier Wen Jiabao reinforced his status as China’s highest-ranking humanitarian by communicating messages right where children lay trapped under rubble. President Hu Jintao, a staid presence when he appears in public, also showed a rarely-seen soft side when he visited hard-hit areas.

For a time, China’s leaders let the entire world see an un-cut version of events on the ground. Initially reluctant to allow journalists to go to Sichuan, officials relaxed restrictions and permitted foreign reporters to cover stories and conduct interviews of locals. State-run newspapers were able to publish—if only for a few days—images and articles produced by their own staffs. The relief efforts of the People’s Liberation Army won their expected share of media coverage but did not totally overshadow the gritty heroism of common citizens. The sense of looseness and magnanimity contrasted with the state control and formulaic reportage usually mandated for major national events in China.

Despite the urgent demands of earthquake relief, Beijing forged ahead with talks on human rights and made overtures to resume long-suspended dialogues with foreign governments, including those of the United States, Switzerland, and Germany. The Sino-US meeting, set to revive a dormant official dialogue for the first time since 2002, took place as scheduled in Beijing in late May. And in early July, naturalized American citizen and businessman Jude Shao was unexpectedly released on parole. Since his arrest in 1998, Shao’s case was the most frequently raised on prisoner lists submitted by the US government to Beijing (read more on the dialogue and Shao’s release).

On another positive note, the earthquake propelled into action China’s burgeoning civil society and some legal mechanisms meant to help citizens advocate for their rights. Donations poured in from around the country and many volunteers went to affected areas, often with the coordination of local organizations working independent of the government. On television and over the Internet, lawyers introduced Chinese citizens to means to protecting their rights, including how to sue the government for building code violations for classrooms that collapsed in the quake.

Doors Close on Free Expression
But familiar themes tied to human rights—and rights violations—surfaced in the form of citizen activism and the often harsh responses of authorities. Gathering to mourn the dead, parents appealed for answers as to how school buildings could have buried so many students, and Chinese police and soldiers went from rescuers to guards as they cordoned off crumbled buildings. Traditional memorial rites—to be held for the dead a month after the earthquake—were banned near school grounds, with participants dragged away and risking detention and arrest. Images of such incidents were among the most moving examples of popular unrest in China published in the foreign media since scenes from the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989.

Media and communications focused on the earthquake’s aftermath became stifled and, at times, were met with quick repercussions. Chinese journalists were ordered to downplay stories deemed too embarrassing for officials. Several foreign reporters were expelled from Sichuan as overseas coverage of alleged corruption and malfeasance began to unnerve party leaders. Chinese who posted comments online about post-quake realities felt the arm of the law tighten around them. On June 10, Huang Qi, a veteran rights activist imprisoned in the past for “subversion,” was detained (and formally arrested in July) for “illegal possession of state secrets” in connection with his activities inside the quake zone and after criticizing corrupt relief efforts via his web site. A day earlier, police detained retired teacher Zeng Hongling for “subversion” for posting similar criticisms on a US-based site.

Only a month prior to the Olympics, China was projecting an image to the world that was far from the “peacefully rising” country that Beijing longed to show off in August. Many observers abroad moved to castigate Chinese officials for suppressing rights, and Beijing’s principal move against accusations of corruption prior to the disaster and in subsequent relief work struck a familiar chord; several officials in Sichuan were sacked but deeper questions of accountability and justice were not addressed. While facing renewed negativity from overseas for its policies in Africa (notably in Zimbabwe and Sudan), China was turning into a boiling cauldron within. Among prominent incidents that broke out one after another, mass mayhem ensued over an alleged police cover-up of a suspicious death in Guizhou Province, a shootout in Xinjiang claimed the lives of five Uyghurs allegedly plotting a “holy war” against Han Chinese, and a pair of bus bombings rocked the city of Kunming.

Rights & Reform On “Beijing Time”
Though the opening for free expression for Chinese citizens closed rapidly after the earthquake, the country’s leaders have made progress on—and have plans for—some long-term initiatives in human rights and legal reform. The reduction in use of the death penalty, in line with China’s expressed goal to eliminate the practice, has been especially encouraging. As reported in the Chinese press, 15 percent of death sentences issued by provincial courts through the first half of 2008 had been overturned after review by the Supreme People’s Court, and death sentences last year dropped by about 30 percent compared to 2006.

Still, a steep spike in political arrests in recent years and continued police harassment of activists and journalists are sobering reminders of the extent of reforms needed to bring about greater freedoms in China. And tight restrictions on travel, residency, and access for the Summer Olympics, which were unfurled over a period of months, have left little doubt that the country’s leadership places as high a priority on preserving social stability as showing off the Beijing skyline or the excellence of Chinese athletes.

At the annual session of parliament this spring, Wen Jiabao urged officials, albeit in customarily vague language, to break away from old ideas and explore new directions as a way to instill more legitimacy in governance. This sentiment has encouraged widespread calls in the national media to cleanse the party of corrupt officials. On a more tangible level, plans for China to tackle legal reforms were presented at the session, including large-scale reform of the courts by 2016 and the creation of a mature civil society by 2020 that would liberate the activities of NGOs and religious groups.

If such changes are made to the benefit of China’s citizens, it would be a notable departure from an official line that perceives the exercise of free expression after a natural disaster as a threat to national security and social stability. Many observations following the earthquake suggest once again that substantive reforms in China are likely to happen only at designated times and in carefully measured degrees. A “harmonious society” will not come about overnight, but China’s partners and friends will be there every step of the journey, extending goodwill and encouragement while scrutinizing the country’s real progress in human rights.