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China quake: Controls cautiously lifted on flood of volunteers

More than 150,000 have come to help at the quake zone.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2008

Meeting needs: Volunteers – shown here serving food to quake victims in Hanwang, Sichuan Province – have played an instrumental role in China's disaster recovery efforts.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images


Jiangyou, China

Standing at a dusty crossroads surrounded by thousands of homeless earthquake victims, Chen Shoujun had almost lost his voice. He had shouted himself hoarse that morning, he said, trying to organize crowds of enthusiastic young volunteers who had flocked here. "It's not so chaotic now," he said, wiping his brow. "We've got a team of 200 people cleaning the place up and spraying disinfectant."

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At the sharp end of its postearthquake relief and rescue effort since May 12, China's government could not have done without volunteers like Mr. Chen.

More than 150,000 of them have flooded from across the country into the quake zone, according to official estimates. And some observers see in their desire to help a potentially enormous boost for China's fledgling civil society.

"For 2,000 years the Chinese were subjects; since 1949 we have been citizens. This moment is very important to awaken a sense of volunteer spirit and civil society, even if it does not exist yet," says Zhai Yan, the founder of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) offering psychological counseling.

The Chinese government has always been ambivalent about NGOs. On the one hand, officials recognize that such privately funded groups can fill gaps in the country's tattered social welfare system. On the other, the ruling Communist party is deeply suspicious of any social organizations beyond its control. Some groups have legal existence, but that is not easy to achieve under current regulations.

That suspicion is likely to persist, worries Nick Young, a former NGO activist who was expelled from China last year. "The government does not fear NGOs for what they are but for what they might become," he says. "I'd be surprised if the earthquake changed its policy, because it does not change the political fundamentals."

'Just doing what we ought to do'

On the ground in the quake zone, these larger questions about the future are of little concern to the citizens rolling up their sleeves. "We're just doing what we ought to do," says Wu Min, who took food and water to the mostly destroyed town of Hanwang the day after the earthquake with all the other employees of the real estate company where she works. "And there are lots of other people like us."

Those people have come from near and far, tied yellow or red ribbons on their arms to indicate their volunteer status, and helped out in overstretched hospitals, distributed food and water, cleaned up refugee encampments, and cooked. Farther away, they have lined up for hours to give blood, brought their old clothes to charities, and donated money.

Volunteers' relief efforts have complemented soldiers' work in dealing with what Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called the "most pressing task" of disaster recovery: trying to prevent swollen lakes from overflowing and evacuating tens of thousands of residents who might be affected if they do.

The earthquake has sparked "a shock of consciousness," says Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. "People see what they can do beyond their daily lives, and that will elevate a lot of them to think a lot more about their role in society."