Standing in the middle of a yard bustling with soldiers, Luo Ming, a haggard 31-year-old team leader with the Sichuan Emergency Response Volunteer Group, sees a threat nearly as grave as the magnitude 7 earthquake that struck western China’s mountainous area on Saturday: too many volunteers.

“The volunteers have created a certain kind of disaster themselves,” he says, speaking with the rapid speech of someone who has not slept in 48 hours. “It seems like there are more volunteers than there are earthquake victims. They have no place to sleep, and nothing to eat, and most of them have no experience or training.”

Mr Luo is manning the volunteer registration tent at the centre of Longmen township, where the violent earthquake has left thousands of people without shelter, food and water for three days. He has registered more than 500 volunteers, but he has turned even more than that away. “For some people, the biggest help that they can do for disaster areas is go back where they came from safely,” he says.

Frustrations like his are partly why Beijing announced on Sunday a controversial ban on private volunteers and civil society groups entering the disaster area, barring access to the earthquake zone for everyone except government-approved personnel. The announcement was criticised by activists and academics, who say the government is blocking an important source of assistance.

But the very need to go to such lengths to keep volunteers away reflects an important shift in Chinese society, where civic involvement and philanthropic activity are on the rise. “There is for sure an increase in volunteerism in China,” says Shen Hongguo, associate professor at the Northwest University of Politics and Law. He adds that this trend presents a challenge to the government, which can no longer suppress and control situations in the same way.

Some of the people volunteering are youths such as Wang Xiaojun, 22, a student at a vocational school for ethnic minorities in Sichuan’s Tibetan area. “We got out of an exam on Saturday morning, saw the news, and decided to go help,” he says.

He and seven classmates – a mix of Tibetan, Yi and Han ethnicities – arrived on Sunday and unloaded trucks in Longmen. Although they spent the night sleeping on the street, the group is bright-eyed on Monday morning, as they try to hitch rides back home. “As volunteers, you feel so united,” Mr Wang explains. “Everyone is from different areas, but you have the same purpose.”

However, authorities are trying to make sure that no more volunteers such as Mr Wang and his band of classmates show up. In addition to the State Council announcement, several universities in Sichuan issued notices to their students asking them not to travel to the earthquake areas, encouraging them to donate blood instead.

One of the reasons for the government’s harsh attitude is transportation logistics: most of the affected villages are accessible only on narrow mountain roads with precipitous drops on one side and cliffs on the other. The roads are so narrow that cars can only pass by at a crawl, tucking in their mirrors, and squeezing past each other inch by inch. Large rescue vehicles and heavy car traffic make the roads all but impassable.

On one stretch between Longmen and Taiping, traffic was so bad on Sunday morning that an injured woman was taken out of her ambulance, which was stuck in traffic, and piggybacked by her husband to seek medical attention. The logistical block appeared to be a reason why most affected villagers did not receive tents and little or no food or water within the first 48 hours.

The traffic situation seemed to be improving on Monday, with certain roads designated as “medical lifelines” to be used only by ambulances taking patients out. Rescue workers have also adapted to the narrow roads by shifting relief supplies to smaller vehicles. Fleets of motorbikes carrying instant noodles and water were speeding through Longmen village on Monday afternoon, en route to some of the more remote villages that have yet to receive supplies. Government-issued tents, which were initially transported on giant 18-wheeler flatbed trucks, were also being shifted to more nimble pickups.

However, even after transportation improves, Beijing will be faced with the difficult challenge of managing the civil society groups that are so eager to help out.

Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi in Beijing, Li Wan in Longmen and Julie Zhu in Hong Kong

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