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Young Volunteers in Quake Zone Ultimately Find a Modest Mission

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 22, 2008

FEISHUI, China -- Clad in a candy-striped shirt and red hiking boots, Li Xiaotang sat cross-legged on a matching red yoga mat in the middle of a mountain village near the epicenter of last week's earthquake.

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Moved by the images of devastation on state-run television and motivated by tales of heroic rescues, Li and 14 other young Shanghai professionals had traveled 2 1/2 hours by plane and five more by car, at their own expense, to volunteer in the relief effort.

Li and her friends, who met through the Internet, had heard there were places inaccessible by car that soldiers and other rescue workers had not yet reached. Given that their group -- all in their 20s -- included experienced mountaineers and people trained in emergency medical response, they felt they could make a difference.

The problem was that Feishui, where they had been assigned by China's Red Cross, was not one of those places.

Because none of the roads around Feishui had collapsed in the quake, help had arrived early. By the time Li and her friends arrived, the injured had been transported elsewhere and the area was overflowing with supplies and volunteers.

"They have everything they need here. We should go someplace else," Li, 25, who works in information technology, suggested to the other volunteers.

Dai Chongbo, 23, who works in the justice bureau of a neighborhood government in Shanghai, wasn't as diplomatic. "To tell you the truth, I feel a bit ashamed that we are not being used as much as we could be," Dai said.

The devastation in Sichuan province and surrounding areas has prompted an outpouring of goodwill from across China, resulting in $500 million in donations of cash and supplies and a mobilization of tens of thousands of volunteers.

Banners, seemingly plastered everywhere and printed in the bold red typically reserved for party slogans, call on people to "Fight the earthquake!" Car caravans on the road around the hardest-hit areas are bringing in supplies including cooking oil and cellphones donated by businesses.

The influx of so many young people to the areas devastated by the quake is reminiscent of Mao Zedong's "up to the mountains and down to the villages" campaign that started in 1968 and brought millions of urban youths to rural areas to be reeducated as "cultured peasants."

But as the number of quake volunteers has ballooned, the Communist Youth League, which initially put out the call through text messages and television advertisements, has become more ambivalent about the helpers, who now number about 54,000.

In recent days, the group cautioned that volunteers without proper training could encounter dangers -- becoming victims themselves -- or could consume precious water and food supplies in the affected region. Local officials have said volunteers could help by teaching children, donating supplies and providing informal counseling, rather than entering rescue sites.

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