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."
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."
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.
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."