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Moral Performance and Cultural Governance in China: The Compassionate Politics of Disasters

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 July 2016

Bin Xu*
Emory University, Atlanta. Email:


This article examines the Chinese state's moral performance during several major disasters, including the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 1998 Yangtze River floods, and the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. Drawing on the theatrical theory of symbolic politics, I argue that the Sichuan earthquake marked a turn in the state's moral performance. While the Chinese state continued to project an image of a secure, heroic state, it endeavoured to construct a sympathetic image through leaders' displays of compassion and sorrow, a mourning ritual for ordinary victims, and narratives of response and rescue. This shift towards a more compassionate performance can be explained by the state's deployment of cultural resources to respond to societal challenges since the new millennium and its effort to repair its image amid the crises of 2008. The compassionate performance was temporarily effective because it found common ground with the traditional political culture of disaster, which still shapes the public's expectations of the state's moral conduct, and the new public culture that values equality and dignity of human life. Nevertheless, the political dilemmas of the compassionate performance became evident. Its efficacy largely relied on the presentation of suffering at the scene, which, however, led to public demands for the state to address the causes of the suffering. When the state failed to construct an “accountable state” image, this “dilemma of scene” had repercussions for its legitimacy. The efficacy of paternalism was also limited because it was less appealing to the growing urban middle class. By addressing moral performance, this paper contributes to the literature on politics of disaster and advances the important research agenda on cultural governance.


本文考察中国政府在几次重大灾难中的道德表演, 包括 2008 年四川地震, 1998 年华东水灾和 1976 年唐山地震。基于符号政治学中的戏剧理论, 我认为四川地震标志了政府道德表演的一次转型: 中国政府继续塑造一个能够提供安全的、同时具有英雄气概的形象, 但更重要的是其努力塑造富于同情心的形象, 这一形象塑造通过一系列的手段, 比如领袖表达同情和悲伤的情绪, 政府为普通遇难者的哀悼仪式, 以及关于灾难响应和恢复的叙述。这一朝向同情表演的转型是由于政府用文化资源应对自新千年以来来自社会的挑战, 以及其在 2008 年一系列危机中试图修复其形象。同情表演暂时有效, 是因为它能与两种灾难政治文化找到共同点: 传统灾难政治文化, 至今依然影响着公众的对于政府道德行为的期待; 新的公众文化, 其强调生命的平等和尊严。然而, 同情表演的政治困境同样明显。同情表演的效果相当程度上依赖于在表演背景中呈现出苦难, 但这种呈现往往引起公众要求政府对苦难的根源采取措施, 此时如果政府不能塑造一个 “负责任” 的形象, 这种 “背景困境” 会导致同情表演反过来损害其合法性。这一点在关于校舍倒塌的争议上表现的非常明显。同时, 同情表演中的父爱主义也只有有限的效果, 因为其对快速增长的城市中产阶级的吸引力有限。本文通过阐述道德表演, 最终试图对于灾难政治学有所贡献, 同时也试图推进对文化治术的研究。

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2016 

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