China quake: Controls cautiously lifted on flood of volunteers
More than 150,000 have come to help at the quake zone.
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Many of the volunteers on the front lines are 20-somethings, the first generation in China to grow up as only children, commonly referred to as "little emperors," who have often been accused of being materialistic and self-centered.Skip to next paragraph
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Many Chinese social critics have drawn attention to the selfishness and focus on personal well-being that has permeated Chinese society since free market reforms brought prosperity to hundreds of millions.
The volunteers' reaction over the past two weeks suggests that this perceived flaw in society may have its roots in the way citizens have – until now – been offered no way to join in more public-spirited enterprises except under the tutelage of the Communist Party.
Since the earthquake, the government has been "more open and more friendly to NGOs than before," says Jia Xijin, deputy head of the NGO Research Center at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "The government found it needed a lot of resources and citizens to participate, so no clear limits were set" on their activities.
Recent weeks "have helped the government understand NGOs better and maybe realize their role in China," she adds.
In the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, officials are registering citizens who say they would like to monitor the use of relief aid. Whether the authorities will allow them to do so, however, is unclear.
Here in Jiangyou, Chen says that at a meeting with the head of the city's Civil Affairs Bureau, "he was very happy to hear what we were doing," Chen says. "They are starting to pay more attention to us now."
State-approved goals, please
That kind of experience, Ms. Jia hopes, could open the way to more freedom for Chinese NGOs to meet social needs. But she cautions that this is still "only an opportunity" and that it will most likely be limited to fields in which NGOs serve government-approved goals.
If civil society groups start raising political questions or being too critical of the authorities, she predicts, "officials will be reminded that NGOs can be dangerous."
"There is always a very strong desire to corral and manage" among Chinese policymakers, Mr. Young points out. They see "volunteerism as a definite asset, but not an asset that can be left to itself."
The boundaries of the new social space that the earthquake may have opened up are already being sketched out: website blogs that criticize the possibly corrupt construction contracts for schools that collapsed or air allegations of government ineptitude have been closed down.
Meanwhile, a prominent dissident, Guo Quan, was detained 10 days ago after writing articles on his blog that were critical of the government's response to the earthquake.
"Civil society is on the move," argues Professor Jiang. But in the end, the events of the last two weeks may turn out to have been only "a small leap forward."