A View from the Media: Response to the Quake

When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Lushan, Sichuan on April 20th, media attention turned to fundraising and emergency relief efforts directed at the affected region. For Chinese civil society, the event was immediately framed in comparison with the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which almost 70,000 people were killed. The 2008 earthquake has been viewed by many as a turning point for Chinese NGOs, as the government, ill-prepared for the magnitude of such a disaster, turned to local NGOs for aid relief and assistance. These relief efforts spawned a number of Sichuan NGOs dedicated to disaster relief, most notably the Sichuan 5.12 Voluntary Relief Services Center (四川512民间救助服务中心), and led to greater awareness and acknowledgement of NGOs’ role in society from both the government and the public.

With an eye toward the significance that such events can hold for Chinese civil society, then, what can media coverage tell us about the space for non-government organizations today? Perusing the abundance of Chinese media coverage of the Lushan earthquake, two trends are apparent—first, the public has expressed their distrust of government-backed NGOs, or GONGOs, using their checkbooks to “vote” for the privately-founded One Foundation over the government-backed Chinese Red Cross.  Second, the government has professionalized its disaster-relief efforts significantly since the 2008 earthquake, meaning that NGOs’ role in disaster relief must now center on fundraising and auxiliary support.

Within days of the earthquake, it became apparent that the Chinese Red Cross, a government-organized NGO or “GONGO” which operates independently from the international Red Cross organization, was suffering from a major credibility crisis—When the Chinese Red Cross began posting information about their relief efforts on their official Weibo or microblog account, they received a resounding chorus of “gun” or “get lost” from Weibo users. Rumors circulated about organizations and individuals forced to donate to the Red Cross, and about dedicated disaster relief funds being reallocated to other projects. The name Guo Meimei, a Weibo user who incited a major controversy in 2011 after attributing her lavish lifestyle to Red Cross funds, resurfaced again.

Naturally, following this wave of criticism, many turned to the question of what the Chinese Red Cross might do to restore its public credibility. Some called for serious reforms to ensure that the organization was truly transparent and accountable for the management of its funds. Others argued that the Guo Meimei incident should be reinvestigated in order to clear the organization’s name. Others suggested that by successfully coordinating aid efforts for the Lushan earthquake, the Chinese Red Cross might redeem itself in the eyes of the public.

While the Chinese Red Cross has yet to issue a major statement regarding its response to this latest credibility crisis, reform efforts will no doubt build upon recent initiatives, such as attempts to clarify the relationship between local Red Cross branches and the national organization, and the establishment of a “Social Supervision Committee,” an advisory committee composed of well-known persons from the NGO, government, and business sectors. As for whether the Chinese Red Cross will be able to recover its credibility, that will remain to be seen.

In contrast to the opprobrium directed at the Chinese Red Cross, privately-founded organizations saw a major rise in donations for earthquake relief efforts, demonstrating increased public awareness of, and support for, organizations that are not intricately connected to the government. A recent survey by China Youth Daily reflects these sentiments, with data which reveals that 60 percent of interviewees expressed trust in non-government organizations, while only 10 percent trusted government-backed “NGOs.” As the first privately-founded foundation to obtain the “public foundation” status that enables public fundraising, the One Foundation took the majority of headlines concerning public donations for NGO quake relief efforts.

The One Foundation, which reportedly received donations worth RMB 90 million, has been viewed as a leader among non-government organizations, and has implemented transparency mechanisms intended to offer a professionalized alternative to organizations such as the Chinese Red Cross (although the two organizations have quite amicable relations, as the Chinese Red Cross housed the fund that allowed the One Foundation to engage in public fundraising prior to its registration as a public foundation).  While Chinese civil society has generally been enthusiastic about the significance of the One Foundation’s recent good fortune, some have also pointed out that the earthquake will serve as a major test of the organization’s capacity and the effectiveness of its mechanisms.

Aside from the major stir over the changing tide in favor of privately-established organizations over GONGOs, grassroots civil society organizations viewed the earthquake as an opportunity to demonstrate how their capacity had developed since the 2008 earthquake, and to participate in the coordination of a large-scale disaster-relief effort. Many articles covered the heroic efforts of Sichuan NGOs, particularly the 4.20 United Rescue Team formed by 14 Chengdu NGOs, and the NGO Disaster Relief Information Sharing Platform, which enabled more than 50 NGOs to circulate pertinent information through channels such as Weibo. With the aid of civil society, information regarding the earthquake was able to circulate widely and efficiently on a scale far beyond that of the 2008 earthquake, and NGOs and volunteers were able to effectively address the specific needs of affected communities.

At the same time, many noted that despite the enthusiasm and energy of grassroots NGOs and volunteers, the Lushan earthquake did not offer the same opportunities for leadership as the 2008 earthquake.  With government teams dominating on-the-ground relief, NGOs and volunteers were offered only limited access to the disaster zone, and were cautioned against interfering with the activities of professional teams. Chinese civil society scholars and practitioners such as Deng Guosheng of the Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management, Zhang Guoyan of the NGO Disaster Preparedness Center, and others echoed the same refrain that the government should put more effort into coordinating with NGOs and volunteers, and utilizing the strengths that such groups can bring to relief efforts

Other articles give a sense that while the government is appreciative of assistance from civil society, officials would prefer that public involvement in disaster relief take the form of charitable donations. These articles also imply that the shift in donations from the Chinese Red Cross to privately-founded organizations may have received some help from the government, which for the first time recommended that the public donate to “social organizations with a background in disaster relief.” In earlier disasters, the public was encouraged to direct their donations to Civil Affairs bureaus, the Chinese Red Cross, and the China Charity Federation.

Five years after the 5.12 earthquake, what can we say about the space for Chinese civil society? The relationship between Chinese civil society and the Chinese government is still being navigated in quite significant and fundamental ways, as is the relationship between Chinese civil society and the public. It is clear, however, that through its efforts at professionalization and transparency, Chinese civil society has been able to establish itself as an essential component of disaster relief efforts, and that it will continue to find innovative and unique methods for contributing to such efforts in the future.

Associate Director, China Development Brief (English)

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