China Blunts Quake Help

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 10, 2009 | Go to article overview
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China Blunts Quake Help


Byline: Charles Hutzler Associated Press

CHENGDU, China u When a powerful earthquake flattened Sichuan province a year ago, community organizer Zhang Guoyuan seized the moment.

Within days, he was running an aid center and warehouse, coordinating 700 volunteers and taking in $1.6 million in donated food, medicines, supplies and cash.

Then the police told him to stop.

The catastrophic earthquake last May 12 set off an unprecedented surge of volunteerism in China. But the government, always wary of groups beyond its control, has since sought to restrain it u with considerable success.

"From the governmentAEs point of view, theyAEre worried. TheyAEre afraid weAEll do something," said Zhang, a fast-talking 29-year-old who dresses more like the ex-minor official he is than a grass-roots campaigner. "Really all weAEre trying to do is make society better."

The Chinese leadership has long restricted private activist groups, known as nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. After watching popular movements oust autocratic governments in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere earlier this decade, the government redoubled efforts to prevent such groups from becoming a social force that could challenge its authority.

Activists had hoped the quake would change that, opening up more space for private efforts to flourish.

Instead, the magnitude 7.9 quake unnerved the government. It killed large numbers of students among the 90,000 dead and missing, sparking national outrage about badly built schools and raising the prospect of protests.

Now, a year after the disaster, hard-to-navigate rules and official suspicion have left groups underfunded and reliant on the government for survival. The wave of volunteerism has largely dissipated.

"ItAEs still an authoritarian political system," said Shawn Shieh, a politics professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who is living in Beijing and writing a book on social activism. "The government is not going to cede much ground."

The worst natural disaster in a generation, the quake roiled a society grown comfortable with steadily increasing prosperity. Many, especially younger, Chinese long caught up with making money and used to leaving social problems to the government saw it as a defining moment u their chance to give back.

They poured into the Belgium-sized earthquake zone by the tens of thousands and sent an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion in donations. Some piled their cars with instant noodles and bottled water, driving cross-country to deliver relief and dig for survivors in the rubble.

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