Despite repeated aftershocks, the dust is slowly settling on the devastation of the Sichuan earthquake and the Chinese media coverage has shifted its focus to celebrating the Olympics. In all the heart-rending destruction and devastation, there are two episodes from the earthquake which generate a quizzical smile. The first of these is the story of Fan Meizhong, a school teacher who ran for his life when the quake struck, leaving his students behind. Fortunately, his school remained standing and none of his students were hurt. However, the aggravating fact was that he later, in a fit of candidness, admitted to abandoning his wards and defended his action as guided by his own sense of morality and the natural instinct of self-preservation. He proclaimed that he loved his life and that he would not sacrifice it for anyone. Only safety of his daughter (not even his mother) could induce him to sacrifice his own life. Expectedly this proclamation elicited a huge hue and cry from the general public. Nicknamed “Run Run Fan” in light of his action, faced swift condemnation and was fired from his job. Not only that, it even prompted the Ministry of education to issue a new State ethics regulation, which says that protecting the students is a moral obligation of the teachers.
While Fan’s detractors have been more numerous as well as more strident, the media has not been devoid of a few who have dared to praise him for his honesty. Fan could have kept quiet and possibly lived with a nagging feeling of guilt throughout his life. But he chose to publicly expunge it and in a way proclaim his innocence while admitting his guilt.
The second incident is perhaps even more intriguing. Jiang Xiaojuan, a 30 year old police woman in Jiangyou city in Sichuan province and a mother of a six month old child, breastfed six children who lost their mothers in the earthquake. Caught in the act by a press photographer, Jiang expectedly faced profuse showers of praise and approval. Clearly this was a unambiguous case of selfless compassion, of a member of the police force behaving with uncharacteristic tenderness and care. While most agreed to this, what caused the debate among the Chinese was her subsequent promotion to assistant commissioner of public security for the city. While her action was clearly commendable, the resultant promotion, the Chinese public felt, was not justified - as compassion alone, however heart-felt and moving it may be, is not an adequate criteria for elevation to a senior position in the police department.
The Western media and political leaders are obsessed with what they see as absence of democracy and free speech in the China. Some even go to the absurd length of saying that the country suffers from a moral vacuum. The lively and open debate around the Run Run Fan and Jiang Xiaojuan shows that it there is spirit of debate and moral discussion which is alive and vibrant in China – it is just that the issues that the West considers as the core of morality are perhaps not the same as the ones that excite debate and passion among the Chinese. West needs to resist the temptation of judging every country and every person by the single minded view of Western morality and democratic ideals. The Sichuan earthquake revealed a profile of the country which is compassionate, considerate and reflective. There is a sense of balance and intense reflection on what is right and wrong. Recognizing such a mindset, the West needs to let go, relax and let China find its own path at its own pace.