China quake: From rubble, civil society builds

Volunteerism stands strong one year later – and has even won support from local authorities normally wary of grass-roots movements.

Peter Ford / The Christian Science Monitor
Many Hands: A construction worker in the village of Shui Kou Miao helps rebuild a home destroyed by last year's quake. More than 100 groups, Chinese and foreign, now participate in postquake efforts, and many are volunteers.
Signs of normalcy: A pupil did his homework last month amid ruins of earthquake-hit Shifang, in Sichuan Province.

When the Sichuan earthquake hit her mountain village a year ago, recalls young mother Wang Hong, her instinct said that her daughter had been killed at kindergarten.

She was wrong, though, and two days later Chinese soldiers and her mother-in-law helped Ms. Wang carry her little girl down the mountain to safety. "I felt so lucky and grateful that I didn't even cry," Wang says.

Instead she became a volunteer. Today she is in charge of bathing dozens of children in the temporary housing camp where she lives, and teaching the children's parents the rudiments of healthcare.

Her program is run by the international charity Save the Children. "I just felt so touched when I heard that name, I volunteered out of gratitude," Wang explains.

Wang has very personal reasons for her newfound sense of public spiritedness. But she is not alone.

"We almost always have to turn people away," says Frank Dunne, whose Earthquake Resource Center in Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, organizes paying volunteers into weekend reconstruction teams. "College students especially don't seem to have lost any enthusiasm for getting out there."

Last year's earthquake, which provoked a tsunami of sudden sympathy and solidarity in China, has proved to be the catalyst for deeper social changes. "It has strengthened a sense of civil society," says Han Junkui, who has studied activity by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Sichuan over the past year. "Society's enthusiasm for earthquake-hit areas has changed from a passionate attitude to a rational one... The level of enthusiasm does not compare with a year ago, but it definitely still exists."

Dr. Han points to "the unprecedented scale of donations, the fact that NGOs have become much more professional, and the way they are working with the government and with each other" as signs of how individuals and civic groups, independent of the ruling Communist Party, are expanding their influence.

Warnings for troublemakers

They would be well advised to do so cautiously, however. "You have to be strategic in highlighting sensitive issues without irritating government officials," explains Wen Bo, a rising young environmental activist. "If you are seen as a troublemaker ... they will shut your mouth and shut you down," he warns. "NGOs working to improve Chinese society should not work as if they are in the United States."

Elizabeth Hausler, founder of the US-based engineering NGO Build Change, knows all about that. Since she first arrived in Sichuan last year to build earthquake-resistant houses for survivors, she says, "We have been hearing over and over again from the government that we should not cause problems, not get homeowners riled up" against the authorities.

The Chinese government has long been suspicious of NGOs, especially foreign ones, because of the support some lent to the overthrow of governments in former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

The earthquake's aftermath, however, has shown local authorities how useful NGOs can be. "When the [People's Liberation Army] and volunteers left, the government recognized the necessity of NGOs, which can respond to needs rapidly, raise funds, and come up with plans," says Han.

More than 100 groups, Chinese and foreign, are now building houses, counseling survivors, restoring sanitation systems, and undertaking a thousand other tasks that need doing.

"The government welcomes that kind of help because it has money and materials but lacks people," says Tian Jun, founder of the 5/12 NGO coordination platform in Chengdu.

For some NGOs, 'a wide berth'

Build Change is a case in point. After three or four months of keeping a close eye on the group's activities, the Communist Party secretary of Tumen, the small town where Ms. Hausler lives, asked her last month to give him a hand.

He had watched the 12 engineers that Build Change employs as they explained, supervised, and inspected earthquake-resistant construction. He had only two such inspectors himself. Now he wants Build Change to hire another two dozen staff to oversee the building of 9,700 new homes.

"The government wants to be informed, but not to interfere in NGOs as much as they did before ... when they had so little confidence in them," says Mr. Wen.

Mr. Dunne says he has found the same attitude in Sichuan. "They know who we are and they give us a very wide berth to operate in," he says. "We haven't had any trouble."

There are no signs, however, that the authorities are making it any easier for NGOs to register themselves with the government in order to get legal recognition; this keeps them in a legal gray zone, making them vulnerable to official pressure.

Nor were NGOs given any significant role in the central government's plan for Sichuan's reconstruction. Although "more and more officials recognize the importance of NGOs, that is not the same as overall acknowledgement by the government," says Zhai Yan, who trains volunteers in Beijing.

Still, even local recognition marks a step forward for China's nascent civil society groups. More important, says Ms. Zhai, "more and more ordinary people want to join in social work, as the value of NGOs wins broader acceptance" and the scope for individual initiative widens.

Or, as Wang, the mother, puts it, "I can't express my feelings, so I just want to do a bit of work to help."

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