Government blunts activism set off by China earthquake

Sunday, May 10, 2009
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009, Chinese children celebrate with gifts from the NGO Disaster Preparedness Center whose members visited the quake hit town of Luoshui, near Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province. 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_with considerable success. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

CHENGDU, China -- 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 quake 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 -- with considerable success.

"From the government's point of view, they're worried. They're afraid we'll do something," said Zhang, a fast-talking 29-year-old who dresses more like the ex-minor official he is than a grassroots campaigner. "Really all we're trying to do is make society better."

The Chinese leadership has long restricted private activist groups, known as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, trying 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.

"It's 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 -- 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.

"When the earthquake came, it was an opportunity," Zhang said. "I thought, 'China's NGOs ought to take real action.' I knew doing so was risky."

Donors shoveled money and supplies at Zhang's NGO Disaster Relief Joint Office, formed by 40 activists a day after the quake. Soon they were running a network of hundreds of volunteers and dozens of trucks. But the group ran afoul of tightened restrictions on accepting donations and dissolved.

Zhang shrugged off the setback, forming a smaller group that builds community centers for displaced families living in camps of aluminum-sided huts.

Others left or were forced out. Local officials ran about two dozen volunteers out of the destroyed town of Beichuan, accusing them of stirring up protests by families whose children died in the disaster. Perhaps 10,000 volunteers still work in the area, probably a tenth or less than last summer, said Gao Wazi, a retired official who runs a liaison office for volunteer groups.

"The government is still pretty strict in managing the disaster area. We civil groups have limited resources, our level of organization isn't high, the disaster area is large and information isn't easy to get," said Gao.

His three-person Sichuan 512 Civil Relief Assistance Services Center operates from two third-floor offices on a $14,000 grant that's supposed to last a year. "We haven't been able to get funding for an SUV we really need," Gao said.

Activists are eking out some gains in the quake's aftermath, Shieh said. Beijing is allowing the state-backed Chinese Red Cross Foundation to provide a few, better-established groups with funding for the first time.

Overall, however, Beijing has monopolized the reconstruction, allowing the government to claim credit and ensuring that the quake was not the game-changing event activists hoped for.

A key control mechanism is the NGO registration requirements. Groups must find government sponsors, which weeds out any straying into politically sensitive fields. Without registration, groups are prohibited from receiving donations.

With donations flooding in, Beijing further tightened rules for quake-related donations, naming only five state-backed groups eligible to receive them.

The net effect of all these rules, activists said, is to reinforce government control.

Because activist groups tend to be small, donors find they need to work through state agencies to run effective programs, said Xu Yongguang, the executive director of the private Narada Foundation and a member of the government's top consultative body.

"This is how civil donations go round to the government, strengthening the government's control of resources and contravening the donors' original intentions," he groused at a seminar in Beijing in November.

U.S.-trained architect Liu Xiaodu and a dozen colleagues and friends hoped to raise money to design and build appealing, cost-effective schools to replace those toppled by the quake. They got backing from a wealthy real estate developer and the Lion's Club in the southeastern city of Shenzhen.

But authorities refused to register them as an NGO, Liu said. Unable to receive donations, their funding was routed through an official charity, which passed it on to local governments, giving them a say in the process.

Liu and his colleagues are designing three new schools on the northern fringes of the quake zone. But they cannot tap the funding to acquire tools and expertise to build up their organization.

"In the future, as an NGO, we could specialize in building schools in poor areas" if the government gives us permission, said Liu, as he watched workers in red hard hats dig six-foot-deep holes on a hillside for support columns for the Weizigou village primary school. "We've developed expectations and it would be a shame to see them wasted."

The unlevel playing field trips up even experienced operators such as Zhang, a government insider whose previous work as a community organizer won him official awards as one of "China's 100 outstanding volunteers."

After university, Zhang joined the Communist Youth League, which sent him to Panzhihua, a booming steel town deep in the Sichuan hills, in 2004.

Zhang found his calling, organizing groups that ran education campaigns on women's rights and labor issues. His first group, the Panzhihua East District Volunteers Association, attracted funding from the Australian and Canadian governments. Zhang became a fixture at foreign-funded activist conferences.

His early association with the Youth League taught him a valuable lesson, he said: "Always cooperate with the government."

In the fast-moving days after the quake, however, Zhang said he misjudged the situation.

Police and Youth League officials from Panzhihua came to investigate how $250,000 in donations ended up in his bank account, violating government orders that donations be turned over to state-approved charities. An audit later cleared Zhang, finding all funds accounted for.

The experience embittered him about government. But using his official contacts, he registered a new group, the NGO Disaster Preparedness Center, which relies largely on foreign donations. Zhang carefully tries to bridge the gap between officials and activist groups.

One day, Zhang is lobbying a leading official in Dujiangyan to let him open a community center. The next, he is toasting the deputy director of Luoshui town at the opening of a hangar-like center at a resettlement camp for 800 families. Nine small groups, many of them set up by university students, provide services at the center, among them eye exams and activities for children and the elderly.

"It's a tactic. You must go in step with the government. Otherwise there's trouble. You'll have the police, state security, the anti-corruption bureau investigating you," said Zhang.

To the refugees living in neatly lined huts, the effort pales next to the government's. "We don't have to pay for anything -- water, electricity. The government is taking care of everything," said Zhou Mingnong, a lanky restaurant cook with a family of four.

Zhang does not expect the government to even up the imbalance of power soon.

"Look at the history of our ruling party. In the past, they relied on urban organizations, labor organizations, youth organizations to create a great force and come to power," said Zhang. "They're not about to let NGOs really join up and get too big. They're looking to stabilize their ability to rule."

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