Image: Residents rebuild their homes months after an earthquake demolished a wide swathe of Luoshui, near Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
Residents rebuild their homes months after an earthquake demolished a wide swathe of Luoshui, near Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province, in February. The catastrophic earthquake last May 12 set off an unprecedented surge of volunteerism in China.
updated 5/11/2009 11:58:42 AM ET 2009-05-11T15:58:42

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 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.

'They're worried'
"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 grass-roots 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. After watching popular movements oust autocratic governments in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere earlier this decade, the government redoubled efforts 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.

Still 'authoritarian'
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.

Some groups forced out
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.

Image: A worker looks at a school building project
Andy Wong  /  AP
A worker looks at a school building project designed by U.S.-trained architect Liu Xiaodu at a construction site in Weizigou village, Gansu province.
"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."

Finding his calling
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.

Image: Zhang Guoyuan
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
Community organizer Zhang Guoyuan stands in a hangar-like center made of concrete blocks and plastic siding at a resettlement camp for 800 families in Luoshui town near Chengdu, southwestern China's Sichuan province.
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.

'You must go in step'
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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Photos: China's catastrophic quake

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  1. Stunned and injured survivors sit on the rubble in Beichuan, China, on May 13, 2008, one day after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck. The quake, centered in neighboring Wenchuan county, in China's southwestern Sichuan province was felt nationwide, and seriously damaged an area about the size of Kentucky. The official death toll was 68,712 plus 18,000 listed as missing and presumed dead. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rescue workers pull a young girl from the rubble of a collapsed school in Juyuan, China on May 13, 2008. The quake was the worst the country had experienced in three decades. It's aftermath was especially horrific because it struck in the middle of the day on a Monday, causing hundreds of poorly constructed schools to collapse and kill a disproportionate number of children. (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rescuers carry a wounded person out of the debris of a collapsed building in Beichuan county in southwest China's Sichuan province on May 13, 2008, a day after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the region. (Wang Jiaowen / Color China Photo via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Chinese man mourns the death of a student near the site of a school that collapsed in Juyuan, southwestern China's Sichuan province on May 13, 2008. Hundreds of teenaged students were killed when this four-story structure collapsed. The heart-rending scene of parents mourning their children was repeated throughout the quake zone, where hundreds of schools collapsed--prompting critics to compare the construction materials to "tofu dregs." (Ng Han Guan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An earthquake survivor at a hospital in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province. The city of more than 10.4 million residents was largely unscathed by the earthquake, though towns just outside its perimeter were badly damaged. Victims were transported to dozens of hospitals in Chengdu and other cities in the region. (EyePress via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rescuers carry the body of a student out of the debris of the collapsed Juyuan Middle School at the earthquake-stricken Juyuan township about 20 miles north of Chengdu, China on May 13, 2008. China's central government in Beijing won acclaim for its large and efficient response to the disaster, but the widespread collapse of schools caused bitter controversy over poor government oversight at the local level. (Xi Xui / Color China Photos via Zuma Pres) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A survivor trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building awaits rescue on May 13, 2008, in Mianyang city, China. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A soldier gives water to a wounded woman in Beichuan county, near the epicenter of the earthquake, a day after the temblor devastated this town. This was one of the first areas that rescuers were able to reach after the quake hit. In more remote areas, where roads were destroyed, some towns and villages were cut off for many days, except to air rescue. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A rescue worker carries a survivor from a collapsed building in the old city district in Beichuan county on May 15, 2008, three days after the initial earthquake struck. The 7.9 magnitude earthquake on May 12 was followed by thousands of aftershocks, some of which caused new damage and deaths. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Grieving parents gather in front of a high school in Hanwang township, Mianzhu City northeast of Chengdu on May 14, 2008, two days after the earthquake struck. The Chinese government recently announced that 5,335 students were killed in the quake, and another 546 were left disabled by the disaster. Some Chinese activists believe the number was higher. (Bobby Yip / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A father mourns next to the body of his son (R) which is laid out with other earthquake victims on a sports field at a school in Hanwang town, Mianzhu county, on May 14, 2008. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A mother holds the body of her daughter on the grounds of a school in earthquake-hit Hanwang Town of Mianzhu county, Sichuan province, on May 14, 2008. (Jason Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Residents charge their cell phones with power from a generator brought in for a temporary outdoor shelter in Dujiangyan, north of Chengdu, China on May 14, 2008. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tens of thousands were living on the street, in stadiums or or other makeshift shelters because their homes were destroyed or damaged, or because they feared aftershocks. (Greg Baker / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Soldiers carry a wounded man out of a collapsed building in Beichuan County, Sichuan Province, on May 14, 2008. Beijing ordered tens of thousands of troops to the earthquake stricken region to help with search and rescue. They were largely lauded for their work, though in some places, residents complained that the soldiers lacked the heavy equipment needed to remove the debris. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The body of a girl who was found in the rubble of the Qushan kindergarten is carried across a bridge in Beichuan county, Sichuan province on May 16, 2008. The child's body was found with that of a classmate at the kindergarten. The two children, who had been taking a nap when the earthquake hit, were later buried together at the park. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rescuers gather on a collapsed building in earthquake-stricken Beichuan city, southwest China's Sichuan province on May 15, 2008. Several devastated towns in the earthquake zone, including this one, were considered unsalvageable and were not to be rebuilt. About 12,000 people, or 75 percent of the population of Beichuan, were killed in the quake. Surviving residents were to be relocated. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A victim's hand peeks out from under a blanket in the foreground amid the rubble of Beichuan, an especially hard-hit town in Sichuan province on May 16, 2008. Rescue team members seen in the background continue their search, turning up survivors for nearly a week after the May 12 quake. (Andy Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A flattened taxi lies crushed under a boulder on a street in Beichuan city, Sichuan Province on May 16, 2008. The city of Beichuan was deemed unsalvageable, and was not to be rebuilt after the quake. It's residents were to be relocated. The Chinese government estimated that the earthquake left some 5 million people homeless. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Parents mourn over their child who was killed in a collapsed school building in earthquake-hit Hongbai county of Shifang, in Sichuan province, May 15, 2008. (Carlf Zhang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. People flee a landslide caused by an aftershock on May 17, 2008 in Lixian county, Sichuan province, five days after the initial quake. There were thousands of aftershocks to the 7.9 magnitude temblor, some measure 6 to 7 on the Richter scale. (China Photos via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A woman walks among debris at the Hongbai Township in Shifang, in China's southwestern Sichuan province on May 18, 2008, six days after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake devastated the region. (China Photos via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Motorists on the six-lane Jianguomenwai Avenue in Beijing stand beside their cars to honor the victims of devastating earthquake, on May 19, 2008, a week after the quake struck. The observance was repeated in cities across China. The final count of dead and missing in the disaster was nearly 90,000. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Soldiers tend to Wang Chunbang, a 56-year-old man rescued on May 19 from earthquake debris after being trapped for nearly seven days. Wang was found along with six bodies of victims during the rescue work in a rural area northeast of Chengdu, in southwest China's Sichuan province. (Yang Guanghui / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Relatives await news of children who were in a school that collapsed in Dujiangyan, about 20 miles north of Chengdu, and 40 miles from the quake's epicenter in Wenchuan county, Sichuan province on May 13, 2003. (Ou Yangjie / ChinaFotoPress via Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. People walk past empty graves at a burial site in earthquake-hit Hongbai town, Sichuan province on May 20, 2008. The final toll of dead and missing in the disaster was close to 90,000. (Carlf Zhang / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman climbs over the debris of collapsed buildings in Beichuan city, Sichuan province, on May 20, 2008. Fears of aftershocks and disease prompted authorities to halt search and rescue in the area after several days, allowing only residents to enter. (Michael Reynolds / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Nine-year-old Xia Xueyin, her face badly bruised from a fall during the earthquake, takes photos of her family's damaged home in Hanwang town of China's southwest Sichuan province Thursday, May 22, 2008. The girl's parents said that they brought her back to her home to see the damage and to look for her belongings to help her cope with the trauma of having experienced the May 12 earthquake. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. People injured in the earthquake occupy tents outside the Mianyang Center hospital north of Chengdu, Sichuan province on on May 25, 2008, nearly two weeks after the quake struck. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A Chinese man carries a mattress out of the rubble of Yingxiu town in Wenchuan County of southwest China's Sichuan province on May 27, 2008, two weeks after the earthquake destroyed the town. Yingxiu, with a pre-earthquake population of about 10,000, was the closest town to the epicenter. The town was to be razed and surviving residents relocated to safer areas. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. An earthquake survivor rests from searching for personal belongings in his destroyed home in Yinghua, Sichuan province, on May 17, 2008. The government mobilized more than 130,000 troops and relief workers to extend relief operations into the mountains of Sichuan province, while caring for tens of thousands of people made homeless. State media reported that 10 million people were directly affected by the quake. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Two residents, one carrying a wedding picture of relatives and and other belongings, evacuate the disaster area in Beichuan county, southwest China's Sichuan province May 17, 2008. The man in the wedding image was killed in the earthquake. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Chinese rescue workers line up to leave the area as authorities prepare to destroy earthquake damaged buildings using explosives and construction equipment in Yingxiu in Wenchuan county, on May 27, 2008. Yingxiu was the town closest to the epicenter of the quake. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A woman crosses a damaged bridge in Hanwang town on May 28, 2008, two weeks after a 7.9 magnitude devastated the region. (Oded Balilty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A vendor arranges shoes she dug out of the earthquake rubble as she waits for customers at Jiulong in China's Sichuan province on Wednesday May 28, 2008. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Bottles of water pile up at a relief center for earthquake survivors following the May 12 earthquake in Leigu, a village near Beichuan town, Sichuan province on May 29, 2008. (Oded Balilty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A mother stands in the rubble of the Fuxin No. 2 Primary School in Wufu, China, holding a picture of her daughter who was killed there when the earthquake caused the school to collapse two weeks earlier. The widespread collapse of schools sparked fury among anguished parents. China's central govenment promised to punish anyone found responsible for poor constuction of schools, but later shut down discussion of the subject, evidently fearing unrest. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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