Quake tragedy stirs ordinary Chinese to charity

Posted in China , Other | 20-May-08 | Author: Jim Yardley and David Barboza| Source: International Herald Tribune

Duan Hanbing, right, helped move a survivor of last week's earthquake to a hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan. She is part of the wave of volunteers from all over China.

LUCHI, China: Hao Lin had already lied to his wife about his destination, hopped a plane to Chengdu, borrowed a bike and pedaled through the countryside in shorts and leather loafers by the time he reached this ravaged farming village. A psychologist, Hao had come to offer free counseling to earthquake survivors.

He had company. A busload of volunteers in matching red hats was bumping along the village's rutted dirt road. Employees from a private company in Chengdu were cleaning up a town around the bend. Other volunteers from around China had already delivered food, water and sympathy.

"I haven't done this before," said Hao, 36, as he straddled his mountain bike on Saturday evening. "Ordinary people now understand how to take action on their own."

From the moment the earthquake struck on May 12, the Chinese government dispatched soldiers, police officers and rescue workers in the type of mass mobilization expected of the ruling Communist Party. But an unexpected mobilization, prompted partly by unusually vigorous and dramatic coverage of the disaster in the state-run news media, has come from outside official channels. Thousands of Chinese have streamed into the quake region or donated record sums of money in a striking and unscripted public response.

Beijing is instinctively wary of public activism and has long maintained tight restrictions on private charities and religious, social and environmental groups that operate outside government control. The public outpouring is so overwhelming that analysts are debating whether it will create political aftershocks and place pressure on China's authoritarian state to allow more space for civil society.

When the quake struck, party officials initially assigned oversight of private relief efforts to the Communist Youth League, the political base of President Hu Jintao. But many individuals, corporations and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, simply rushed into action to supplement what they say is an overburdened Chinese Red Cross or to help with the rescue, according to representatives of some private citizens' groups.

Faced with the potential for a grave humanitarian crisis, officials loosened their grip. They have since begun warning volunteers to stay out of the earthquake zone, citing safety concerns. But thousands are already there.

In Chengdu, relief volunteers have formed a command structure called the NGO Relief Action Group to coordinate 30 organizations. They have collected donations of instant noodles, biscuits, rice, medicine, clothes and bedding.

"We realized that this is such an unprecedented crisis that we must join together to make some substantial contribution," said Xing Mo, 39, a veteran organizer of nongovernmental organizations and president of the Yunnan Institute of Development, a school that trains volunteers.

Most volunteers say they approve of the way the government has handled rescue and relief efforts so far. Some experts believe that party leaders could channel that enthusiasm to bolster their authority, just as they helped stoke nationalist anger after the outbreak of ethnic Tibetan unrest and foreign protests against the Olympic torch this spring.

Even so, Chinese leaders generally treat unscripted public involvement in civil affairs as a threat to stability. The reaction to the quake in Sichuan Province shows how rising wealth, cellphones, text messaging and mass transportation now make it much harder for the authorities to control popular reaction to a major event.

The public's spontaneous rush to volunteer is a piece of the same defiance in which media outlets collectively defied an initial ban by the party's Propaganda Department on firsthand coverage of the quake.

"This is a significant turning point for China," said Bao Shuming, a senior research coordinator for the China Data Center at the University of Michigan. "This is going to dissolve some boundaries between the government and the common people. People are becoming more educated and organized, and society is becoming more open."

For many Chinese, the public reaction is simply a natural outpouring of grief and a desire to help, reflective of a society where more people are now rich enough to give back. Even as traditionalists deplore modern China's moral drift and embrace of materialism, a catastrophe projected to claim 50,000 lives, including thousands of children, has struck a deep chord.

"We grew up reciting Confucius saying that all men are born kind, but it takes a disaster like this to bring out the innate kindness of everyday human beings," said Alan Qiu, 41, an investor in Shanghai. "People are touched by the scenes of children and also the value of life. We grew up in a society where people tend to believe that Chinese lives are of less value than foreign lives."

Outside the earthquake zone in Sichuan, the public response has grown exponentially. Exact figures change daily, but donations from Chinese citizens and companies have already surpassed the $500 million allocated by the government, according to state media. Some donations have been big, with Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong millionaire, giving $14 million, while schoolchildren have donated the equivalent of pennies.

Blood drives, cake sales, charity fund-raisers and art auctions have already been held. Other people have dropped everything and raced to the scene. Forty members of a private car club in Chengdu, Sichuan's provincial capital, made multiple trips transporting more than 100 injured people out of the devastated city of Shifang. Others have filled their cars or sport utility vehicles with supplies and driven hundreds of miles to Sichuan's mountains.

Public interest is being driven by images and stories of heartbreak in the Chinese media that once would have been banned. State television has replayed film of herculean efforts to save trapped people, while newspapers have also been allowed to describe the horrors and graphic details of the devastation.

"One of the most amazing things is to see 24-hour coverage," said Anthony Saich, a China specialist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He added, "Given the heightened sensitivity to the Olympics and the nationalist pride pumped up with the events in Tibet, maybe there's a heightened sense of patriotism that was easier to mobilize here."

Saich noted that China's younger urban generation had shown little interest before in the plight of people in the countryside. "But now they are really shocked by the conditions people are living in."

Developing a robust civil society is considered a major step if China is to become more democratic, and some advocates are hoping the earthquake proves to be a defining moment that will inspire the public to push for more change in the future. As yet, though, nongovernmental organization's are still playing a very minor role, and Xing of the Yunnan Institute acknowledged that merely being allowed at the scene did not mean that private groups were having the sort of impact they desired.

"The most frustrating thing is that transportation is a big headache," he said. "We have so much cargo stuck on the way. We know thousands of people are in need urgently. But we simply cannot get to them."

There are also a few emerging warning signals. Some companies are now requiring employees to make contributions rather than encouraging volunteerism. Bloggers have hectored celebrities, including the basketball star Yao Ming, whose relief donations are not deemed big enough. The torrent of contributions inevitably raises the specter of corruption and concerns about whether the money will be well spent. Government officials are starting to seek out experts on how to make rescue efforts more efficient.

For now, though, the huge public response, and its often chaotic, ad hoc nature, is evident in much of the earthquake zone. State media reported that the first private volunteers to arrive at the scene were a rescue team organized by the president of a Jiangsu Province investment firm. Since then, a passionate contingent of private citizens has steadily arrived.

Here in the remote village of Luchi, the local glass factory is a shattered husk while clusters of brick farmhouses are leveled. For Liu Lie, 67, a rice farmer, the situation is dire. He is sleeping with seven family members under a plastic tarp. Every wall of his home has been destroyed. But at the edge of his tarp, Liu pointed to stacks of bottled water, boxes of snacks and food and two bags of rice ? all donations from volunteers who came here.

"They are coming because they love the Chinese people," Liu said. "You have to understand the difference between the old society and new society. Twenty years ago, we didn't have food to eat. Now people are bringing us supplies from Guangzhou and all over the country."

Liu must still rebuild his home and restart his life long after the volunteers have returned to their regular lives. His wife, Guo Bihua, 63, is worried. "I'm worried about how we will build the house," she said. "I'm old."

Not far away, Hao, the psychologist, was just arriving with two other bikers, including Larry Wang, a Chinese who spent 30 years living in New York City. They had met in Chengdu and were riding through devastated rural areas to provide counseling. Hao lives in the teeming export city of Shenzhen and had two weeks of supplies stuffed inside a backpack.

He said he was excited to talk to survivors, especially children, and to help them cope. But do not tell his wife. "My wife doesn't know I'm here," he admitted. "She would be too scared. She thinks I'm in Guangzhou."