© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
In 2008, when a devastating earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province, private volunteers and hastily formed civic groups rushed into the area and played a major role in relief efforts. Within a couple of months, however, many of them were asked to leave, as the government decided it had had enough of independent groups organising relief efforts and thereby encroaching on territory that was traditionally the preserve of the state.
This time, after a major earthquake hit Sichuan province on Saturday, Beijing acted much faster to exert its control over the inflow of volunteers, charity groups and aid money to the earthquake zone. The day after the earthquake, authorities banned volunteers and civic groups from entering the disaster area without accreditation from the State Council, China’s cabinet.
For the government, these volunteer groups represent not just aid, but also a subtle political challenge. Civil society and civic involvement – from philanthropy and volunteering to activist campaigns – have been on the rise in China, despite Beijing’s efforts at control.
The Ya’an earthquake shows how easy it is for these civic groups to organise and how quickly they can tap a powerful groundswell of support thanks to social media. The influx of volunteers has ranged from high school students to medical experts and Christian groups. Minutes after the earthquake on Saturday, people across the country turned to WeChat, a messaging app with more than 300m members, to check in with family or see how they could help.
One of the relief groups formed on WeChat was the “420 United Rescue Movement”, a loose affiliation of 20-odd local NGOs in Sichuan, named after the day of the quake, April 20. “At first when the earthquake struck you couldn’t use phone or text, but WeChat was working,” says Fu Yan, a co-ordinator for the group. It posted a call for supplies at 10am on Saturday – just 90 minutes after the quake struck – and delivered its first truckload of goods the same day.
However, after the State Council’s announcement, such groups are having trouble getting the permits needed to enter the earthquake zone. “We only have a limited number of permits, not many,” said Ms Fu. “I actually heard people arguing because they couldn’t even find one permit.”
The ostensible reason for the blockade is traffic congestion on the narrow mountain roads where the quake struck. However, many of the worst jams were caused by oversized government-linked vehicles driving on narrow roads, combined with poor traffic co-ordination.
The permitting system has some defenders. Zheng Yiling, development head at Huaxia Public Welfare, a large state-linked social service group, says more than 700 organisations are inside the earthquake zone, but only 20 per cent have the necessary experience and training learnt in previous earthquakes. “Many volunteers came here for no purpose whatsoever,” he complains.
But many believe that an even more important reason for the blockade is the government’s desire to maintain its monopoly on saving the day.
Beijing is keen to avoid a repeat of the 2008 earthquake, which was followed by a groundswell of public help. Once unleashed, that force is hard to put back in the bottle, as authorities have been finding out. Some of the charity groups became a thorn in the side of local government because they would uncover facts that local officials preferred to keep under wraps.
Wang Liwei, founder of Charitarian, a charity media group, says authorities in Beijing are keen to prevent another NGO “boom” from happening like it did in 2008. One reason for this is that the government does not want its relief efforts to look bad next to those of other groups, he adds.
As cynical as that may seem, it is matched by an equally cynical Chinese public. Citizens have overwhelmingly been giving their money to private foundations and charities, and avoiding government-linked groups such as the Chinese Red Cross, because of concerns over corruption and a lack of transparency.
Earthquakes and natural disasters are often a propaganda opportunity for the Communist party, and state-run newspapers are splashed with images of soldiers rescuing small children. But the rise in civic activity is a fundamental threat to the party’s grip on power because it shows how much individuals can accomplish – even without an omnipotent Communist party to guide them.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.
Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in