Out of disasters in Russia and China, a bloom of compassion

Russian volunteers rushed to the city of Krymsk after its July 7 flood, just as Chinese gave generously after a 2008 earthquake. Heartfelt, organized charity isn't easy for authoritarian regimes to tolerate.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo
A man carries a food box near cartons of supplies being sent for flood victims in Krymsk, a town 750 miles south of Moscow hit by massive rain waters that left more than 170 people dead.

A massive flood on July 7 in the Russian city of Krymsk killed more than 170 people. Yet the event could be remembered as more than a tragedy. It also triggered an unusual outpouring of compassion among ordinary Russians.

Thousands of young people organized quickly through the Internet and traveled 700 miles south of Moscow to volunteer in the relief and recovery efforts for the city. They not only helped the government’s response but also may have set a precedent for grass-roots giving in a country in which the government keeps a heavy hand on private groups.

The charitable response to the flood reflects a rising distrust of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and a concern for the government’s ability to keep people safe. “It’s a new story for everyone – for society to help society to solve problems, without any contribution from the government,” Moscow activist Alyona Popova told The New York Times.

The not-so-random act of charity had a strong similarity to an outpouring of empathy in China after a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province. That disaster left 87,000 dead, many of them children crushed by badly built government schools. Private donations amounted to some $1.5 billion.

Since then, a recognition has come slowly by China’s ruling Communist Party that private charities – including officially approved religious groups – may have a larger role to play in society.

“China still needs to cultivate the nation’s awareness of philanthropy and set up a more complete system to develop the cause,” said Minister of Civil Affairs Li Liguo in March.

In Guangdong, a province that often tests political experiments, new rules began this month to make it easier for nonprofit social groups – other than those involved with politics and human rights – to organize. Religious-based Chinese charities are also being allowed to expand – but with bans on foreign donations and on proselytizing. A number of Christian groups have been permitted to launch care centers for seniors, a rising need in an aging society.

In large part, this loosening of controls on private charity reflects the party’s recognition that an unelected government with a giant bureaucracy isn’t always able to respond well to disasters.

As in Russia and other countries with strong controls, China is steadily finding it must work with the natural empathy of the people. This requires more liberty and trust than the party has allowed in the past.

In April, the government sent a large group of officials and academics to the United States to study the American way of private charity and philanthropy. The huge amount of giving in the US was difficult for them to comprehend. The Chinese conflate government and charity.

The Communist Party has begun to look to Western concepts of love, or a “loving heart,” as a way to build up a rising distrust in society, according to Gerda Wielander of the University of Westminster in London. “Love is very much on the public agenda,” she writes in The China Journal.

If Russia were to follow China’s lead, it would start to encourage rather than suppress organized groups involved in giving. The heartfelt response to the Krymsk flood victims shows what the masses really seek – an opportunity to give.

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