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Wenchuan: The birth of civil society

Updated: 2013-05-09 14:52
(China Daily)

The 2008 Wenchuan quake's destruction accelerated construction of the country's nonprofit sector and volunteering spirit.

Yang Bin lost all hope when he lost both legs. He "killed time" smoking and drinking after his limbs were amputated following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. He recalls bursting into tears the first time he saw his mother after the surgery. "I didn't want to say anything for a month after I was pulled out of the debris," Yang recalls. "But fortunately, volunteers helped me and gave me the strength to start over." Today, he runs a carwash he started with volunteer and NGO support in Sichuan province's Beichuan county. He believed nobody would employ someone with his disability.

Yang recalls feeling despondent when he returned to high school, where classmates would "play around" but he was "stuck in one spot". It was especially hard to watch his friends play basketball - his favorite sport.

Today, the 24-year-old sometimes shoots hoops from his wheelchair.

Wenchuan: The birth of civil society

Earthquake survivor Yang Bin (center) says he hope the carwash business he started with volunteer and NGO support will bring him a better life. Feng Yongbin/China Daily


The recovery of quake-zone residents like Yang is thanks to the efforts of such outsiders as Southwest University of Science and Technology associate professor Wang Bin. Wang led 35 professional consultants and 100 volunteers to Beichuan to help survivors, after about 15,000 county residents perished. The quake left up to 90,000 dead or missing in Sichuan.

"Many young men who were injured or lost loved ones didn't cope well because they didn't know how to express their emotions," Wang says.

"So, our job was to enable them to vent, to speak freely and find solutions to their problems."

Then-President Hu Jintao encouraged Wang to continue counseling during a visit to Beichuan. Wang later founded the Weile Volunteering Service and Research Center that has helped at least 100,000 teenagers. It's one of 10 NGOs registered in Mianyang city and cooperates with the local youth league and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation.

But Wang's team was one of many. The quake is internationally acclaimed as the "birth of China's civil society". More than 1 million volunteers joined the quake relief within a month of the disaster, the Institute for Civil Society of Sun Yat-sen University reports.

"China's NGOs have undergone comparatively slow growth over the three decades, but the sector has accelerated in the five years since the quake," the institute's director, professor Zhu Jiangang, explains.

"The quake's destruction built up their capacity. They emerged as a force to be reckoned with."

The tremor also led such organizations to cooperate on a mass scale, he says.

Two days after the temblor, more than 40 organizations from Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces came together under one umbrella to address quake relief needs.

One of the major NGO players has been Oxfam Hong Kong.

The anti-poverty organization arrived at the epicenter a day after the quake, bringing not only food and water but also such items as tampons.

Oxfam has worked closely with the survivors since.

"We've been working with women in impoverished areas for decades," Oxfam's China Program director Liu Hung-to says.

"So, we're familiar with their needs."

Oxfam also brought halal food for Muslims in Gansu and Sichuan, when much of the available food, such as ham sausages, was haram.

The NGO focused on relief in Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, which were also affected by the quake but not receiving as much attention as Sichuan.

Oxfam Hong Kong expanded because of the quake. It established an office in Sichuan's capital Chengdu about two months after the disaster.

The organization has been restructuring over the past five years to reconfigure its relationships with governments and local grassroots groups.

"Local organizations are more familiar with the on-the-ground conditions, so it's important for us to provide money and training for them in Sichuan," Liu Hung-to says.

The NGO has worked closely with a group in Sichuan's Nanchong in which young volunteers cared for elderly residents of Gaoping district after it was damaged by the quake, Oxfam's Chengdu office director Zhai Fan explains.

The International Poverty Reduction Center in China's deputy director Huang Chengwei says: "People needed various kinds of help after the quake. Working with such civil organizations as Oxfam has helped us enact suitable policies for diverse individuals and needs."

Yang, who runs the carwash, demonstrates the good of the civil sector's growth.

His store cost 300,000 yuan ($48,000). An anonymous volunteer donated about 40,000 yuan, and the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation gave him a 100,000-yuan interest-free loan.

Yang says he was a "troublemaker" in high school but learned how to manage his own store after occupational college.

The shop offers automated carwash services and car accessories.

Yang employs eight young men.

"Five years ago, I didn't think anything good could ever happen to me," Yang says.

"But it's about how you think about life and the world. I really appreciate the generosity of the donors and volunteers — including those who pitched in just one cent."

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