Cover of The Politics of Compassion by Bin Xu
The Politics of Compassion
The Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China
Bin Xu


August 2017
256 pages.
from $25.95
30% off with code BTS2018

Cloth ISBN: 9781503602106
Paper ISBN: 9781503603363
Digital ISBN: 9781503603400

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Co-winner of the the 2018 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book, sponsored by the American Sociological Association (ASA) - Sociology of Culture Section.

Honorable Mention in the 2018 Prize on Asia/Transnational, sponsored by the American Sociological Association (ASA) - Asia and Asian America Section.

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 context. 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 author

Bin Xu is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Emory University.

"Bin Xu's analytic insights into "the politics of compassion" are acute, but his account never erases the personal and human. The result is riveting, provocative, and ultimately heart breaking."

—Deborah Davis, Yale University

"A riveting account of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. All of the different types of actors, both within the state and in society, that constitute "civil society" in China are here brought to life and depicted in their complex interactions and negotiations. The Politics of Compassion should be required reading for all students of contemporary Chinese society and politics, as well as on state-society relations in general."

—David A. Palmer, The University of Hong Kong

"In a field heavily influenced by institutional and organizational analysis, Bin Xu's book foregrounds action, meaning, and context in the formation of Chinese civil society. Analyzing the practices of civic engagement following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Xu tells a rich and moving story of both apathy and moral sentiments, powerlessness and agency. The result is a refreshing, cultural-sociological perspective on the politics of compassion and civil society in China."

—Guobin Yang, University of Pennsylvania