Citizens' Groups Step Up In China

The town of Yingxiu, in Wenchuan county, China, was close to the epicenter of the earthquake and was completely destroyed. The sides of the mountains used to be filled with trees, but landslides have made them mostly barren.
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 29, 2008

YINGXIU, China -- Grass-roots organizations and informal networks of private citizens are playing a vital role in getting supplies to rescue workers and survivors of this month's devastating earthquake in China. The government, in a notable shift, appears content to let them do so.

Officially, nongovernmental organizations in China must register with the government; the larger groups are as rigid and controlled as their official sponsors. Authorities remain deeply suspicious of smaller, independent groups.

Now, however, aided by the proliferation of online bulletin boards, blogs and on-the-ground coordination centers, unregistered grass-roots organizations are essentially functioning as legitimate earthquake-relief NGOs, operating for the first time without having to look over their shoulders and helping to manage a crisis whose death toll could surpass 80,000.

Here in this ruined town, about 40 miles from the epicenter of the May 12 earthquake, a ragtag group of citizens -- a shopkeeper from Guizhou province, his friends and a volunteer worker who knew the way -- emerged the other day after a four-hour trip.

They had placed homemade signs in their vehicles' front windows that said "food and medicine." With miniature video cameras in hand, the group's members looked like tourists. But in delivering medical gloves, antibiotic cream, and fresh cucumbers and cabbages to the front, they had done more to get replacement supplies to rescuers than government troops had managed.

"Fantastic! We've got shortages. We really need fresh vegetables," said Wu Jun, head of a military university hospital, meeting the convoy in a camouflage T-shirt and carrying a sheaf of papers. "Our supply units went to the vegetable wholesale market in Chengdu, but there was nothing left."

The volunteer who had led the civilian convoy to Yingxiu was actually a member of the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, which has set up a makeshift coordination center at its office to aid relief efforts. Xia Lu knew that the road here, littered with grisly car wrecks and fallen boulders, had recently reopened. She also knew which supplies were needed, having made the same trek only five days earlier and talking with soldiers.

Since the earthquake, the coordination center has fielded hundreds of calls and e-mails, using staffers who were already in the field just before the quake as well as other contacts and volunteers.

"We operate like a traffic-control center," Tian Jun, executive director of the river association and head of the coordination center, said as she juggled meetings and phone calls last week. "We get information from the front, either from our own staff or from others, and post it online. Volunteers then buy or bring in supplies, and we direct the supplies to where they're needed."

Alternatively, volunteers and other grass-roots organizations call Tian to tell her what they have in their cars. She then calls contacts in quake-affected towns to see what they need. "In either case, we will supervise the whole process to make sure the need is real and properly satisfied," Tian said.

In a room down the hall -- stocked with donated boxes of milk powder, disinfectant, soap, peanuts, sterile gauze and bags of rice -- two newly arrived volunteers waited for an assignment.

"We're retired, and we really hurt in our hearts when we saw what happened here," said Zhang Liying, 50, who rode a train for 38 hours from the coastal city of Tianjin to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province. "We want to help the soldiers to cook. Whatever help they need, we will do it."

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