Chen points out that the public now has the material basis to help in disaster relief. Thanks to the economic growth over the past 30 years, people have enough money to support others. After the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, when people had too few clothes and not enough to eat, the survivors could only wait for the government to help.
The rising sense of individual independence has been matched by a willingness to shoulder more social burdens.
"The quake showed the Chinese are dependable, with sense of responsibility," says Chen. "If every person has more right to self-determination, the society will fare better."
When an established society loses order, as happened when the quake destroyed towns and cities, conscience and morality become the only guideline, Chen believes.
Originally from Dujiangyan, 90 kilometers southeast of the epicenter, Chen, a sociologist, often studied rural communities in the area.
Most of his friends there are now missing. After the disaster, Chen received a phone call from his brother in the United States, who said most Chinese there had cried after the quake, a message that moved him to tears.
"When you feel the affection of others in a disaster, you feel stronger, maybe stronger than you've ever felt before," says Chen. "It is much more precious than economic interests.
"Chinese people are not passive or indifferent," says Chen. "In the debris of the quake, we've seen the hope of humanity and human nature in Chinese society."
(Xinhua News Agency June 15, 2008)