When a devastating earthquake hit China's Sichuan province in May 2008, one bright spot in the disaster was the massive outpouring of support from across the country. In the weeks following the magnitude 8.0 quake, millions of Chinese contributed to relief efforts, either in cash donations or volunteer labor. Cars and trucks loaded with clothes, bottled water and instant noodles streamed into the disaster zone, where nearly 90,000 people had been killed and 5 million left homeless. The response was so overwhelming that authorities blocked roads and turned away volunteers because they threatened to overwhelm official rescue work. Over the following year, Chinese contributed some $9.5 billion to relief efforts.
And while many observers have said that this outpouring of support represented a turning point for civil society in China, new research suggests the state still dominates aid work. Average Chinese, many with no connection to Sichuan, contributed blood, sweat and cash to relief efforts, and for non-governmental organizations toiling in obscurity, the disaster represented an opportunity to raise cash and build support networks in one of China's most populous provinces. But much of the donations collected over the past year ended up being funneled through local governments, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Beijing's Tsinghua University. And the initial burst of volunteer enthusiasm following the disaster has tapered dramatically.
The six-month investigation into donations and volunteer work in Sichuan estimated that as much as 80% of the total contributed to relief efforts was eventually dispersed to government accounts. In some cases local governments required volunteer groups to hand over funds, says Deng Guosheng, an associate professor at Tsinghua's School of Public Policy and Management, who headed the research team. But in general the heavy reliance on the state is an indicator of the underdeveloped state of many NGOs in China. "Most NGOs are incapable and desperately in need of money," says Deng. "Some of them couldn't even afford to travel to the earthquake zone. In order to get any results for their money, those groups had to rely in turn on the government."
This week an official with the Ministry of Civil Affairs told the Beijing News, a Chinese newspaper, that the heavy state involvement was due to problems with the system for donations. "The credibility of a number of NGOs is not high and their feedback is unclear," said Wang Zhenyao, director of the ministry's Social Welfare and Charities Division. "That's why the donations finally go to government."
Indeed, the Tsinghua study indicated that half of the people who donated after the quake were unsure where their money went. And some 60% said they had doubts about the work of NGOs and had more faith in the government. "I used to be more positive and thought that civil society would really take off in China after the earthquake," says Deng. "But more than a year later, we haven't seen any substantial progress." Since the initial onrush of 300 NGOs and 3 million volunteers in the months after the disaster, the damaged regions now have only about 50 NGOs and 50,000 volunteers, according to the study. "Most of them have retreated as the craze faded away," says Deng. "Even if the NGOs had money in their hands, most of them wouldn't know how to spend it. I think the whole process will take us longer than we thought."
With reporting by Jessie Jiang