washingtonpost.com
Citizens' Groups Step Up In China
Wary Rulers Allow Role in Quake Aid

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."

Mu Wenzhi, the shopkeeper from Guizhou, had the same reaction. He said he and his wife cried while watching TV news reports about the earthquake. He had never volunteered for anything before but, right away, he asked his wife to mind the store. He and six friends pooled their money to buy food.

"We arrived in Dujiangyan on May 14 at 2 a.m., after a 15-hour drive," Mu said, describing his three trips to the earthquake zone, as his four-car convoy waited for other vehicles to pass on the narrow road to Yingxiu. "We were resting in our van when suddenly a group of retired soldiers knocked on our window. They said there was an emergency in Xiang'e town and asked us to unload our supplies and drive them there."

In Xiang'e, an old woman watching Mu eat biscuits turned out to have barely eaten. "She had only drunk two bottles of water and eaten three packages of instant noodles for the past three days," Mu said. "That's when we realized that people were in urgent need of supplies. We went back to Xishui on May 16, organized four cars, bought several truckloads of food in two hours and drove straight back."

Mu and other volunteers are getting tips from television news and people they meet in the earthquake zone, not from government bureaucrats. "No one from the government told us what to do," said Tian, of the river association. "In this urgent situation, we decided to share some of their responsibility."

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and a Chinese media expert at the University of California at Berkeley, said some smaller, unregistered NGOs had teams of volunteers in the quake zone almost as fast as the military had troops there.

"Many self-organized social networks are not formal organizations, but altogether their numbers, resources and role in society is much larger than what the government has officially allowed in the past," Xiao said.

So far, authorities seem pleased with the mobilization, which includes many first-time volunteers and members of social groups such as car clubs and outdoor sports organizations.

"The Chinese people, who have always been criticized for only being good at infighting, have been surprisingly united and therefore powerful in their togetherness," the state-run Beijing Youth Daily editorialized Tuesday. "Grass-roots organizations, which were considered weak due to their lack of a supportive environment, have shown effective organizing and enforcing abilities in the rescue work and proven themselves as healthy and positive forces in society."

No one expects Beijing to relax the rules governing NGOs, and there's no sign that officials will make it easier for grass-roots groups to organize or raise funds, particularly in the politically sensitive period leading up to the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games.

In fact, authorities have stepped up their surveillance of AIDS activists in the capital and pressured Beijing-based human rights lawyers not to meet with visiting U.S. representatives this week. On Wednesday, Communist Party loyalists hacked into and shut down a Web site run by a leading Tibetan writer and critic of government policies toward Tibet.

"The government will not automatically be more open toward NGOs," said Guo Hong, a Chengdu-based sociology professor and volunteer at the makeshift earthquake coordination center in Chengdu. "But I hope they will establish a system for NGOs where they address what kind of social organizations will be allowed to help develop society and what kind of participation will be allowed."

In the long run, another volunteer said, the policy toward NGOs will be more open, but that doesn't mean it will just get easier. "It's like the earthquake. There will be aftershocks, but you don't know when and you don't know how big," said Gao Guizi, director of the Sichuan Social Development Research Institute.

"From this disaster, the government has come to realize the power of the grass roots," Guo said. "This power will be helpful in establishing and managing a real civil society. But the problem is how to allow the grass-roots groups to take part in an orderly way. Taxi drivers used to be considered the least-educated and least-civilized group, but they were the first to respond to the disaster, organizing themselves to drive the injured to hospitals."

Researcher Liu Songjie contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company