An Emerging Civil Society: The Impact of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake on Grass-Roots Associations in China

Article excerpt

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On 12 May 2008, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale struck western China. The epicenter was located near Wenchuan, in the mountainous western part of Sichuan Province, but the force of the quake was such that it was felt as far away as Beijing. The earthquake caused massive damage and led to a death toll of nearly 70,000. It shocked a country preparing to host the summer Olympic Games in Beijing, but the social response to it was just as unexpected. A tremendous surge of volunteers, civic associations, enterprises and media from across the country donated their time, money and materials to the relief and reconstruction effort. Only two weeks after the earthquake, public donations exceeded 30 billion yuan, roughly the same as total public donations made for the entire year of 2007.' The response by volunteers and civic associations participating in the relief effort was also unprecedented.2 While some of these organizations were international NGOs and government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), many were homegrown, grass-roots associations. To drive home the significance of this response, some media reports touted 2008 as the "Year of the Volunteer" or the "Year of Civil Society".

The widespread participation of volunteers and associations in earthquake relief shows that civil society in China has made significant progress in recent years. In the past, crisis management was a top-down process monopolized and mobilized by the state, with little input from ordinary citizens. Just how much of a change in state-society relations does this grass-roots movement represent, however? Studies of civil society responses to earthquakes and other crises suggest that, in the short term, crises often expose state weaknesses and present an opportunity for civic associations to play an active role. In some cases, such as in Japan, earthquakes have led to changes in the laws governing civic associations.3 In other cases, earthquakes have had a more limited impact on state-society relations, as the upsurge in NGO activity and volunteerism was not sustained.4

In China, recent research shows that crises can play a role in expanding space for civil society, as evidenced by NGO participation in the SARS and HIV/AIDS crises.5 Preliminary research on the Sichuan earthquake also suggests that civil society organizations took advantage of the opening to play a role in assisting the government in rescue and relief operations.6

This article uses interviews with government officials, academics and personnel from NGOs involved in the earthquake relief and reconstmction efforts, as well as reports and surveys published by academics, the government, journalists and the NGO community in China, to explore the Sichuan earthquake's impact on Chinese NGOs. The interviews were conducted by the authors, who made several trips to Sichuan from December of 2008 to the summer of 2009.

We first discuss the relationship between NGOs and civil society in the Chinese context, then examine the role that NGOs played in the earthquake relief and the government's response to the participation of NGOs. We argue that the earthquake had several important impacts on NGOs which may translate into more lasting effects on China's civil society. It illuminated and energized what had previously been a quiescent and fragmented civil society by providing an unprecedented opportunity and a public stage for NGOs to mobilize, network and demonstrate their worth. The rapid emergence of NGO networks right after the earthquake is of particular importance, not only because it demonstrated the capacity of NGOs to engage in collective action but also because it brought NGOs into contact with government-backed organizations (mass organizations and GONGOs), international NGOs and individual officials who joined in these networks. Finally, NGO participation in the earthquake, and the challenges that they faced, has stimulated pressure for change in the fundraising and policy environment for NGOs. …