Quake Offers Opening to Chinese Civil Groups

Civil, religious and social groups in China are helping meet the needs created by the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. If such groups are empowered, what becomes of the government control China's leaders favor?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

China has loosened up, for now at least, in the aftermath of the earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people. The government has allowed extensive coverage by the Chinese media; also private relief groups and charities have been allowed a much wider role than usual. Volunteers from churches to environmental groups have organized to lend a hand in Sichuan province.

And as NPR's Rob Gifford reports, that may have consequences for the government in the long run.

ROB GIFFORD: The Christians of Chengdu are mobilizing. At a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, a group of 12 Chinese believers from a local church are stocking boxes of instant noodles, medicine and blankets and loading them up in their cars for the two-hour drive north to the earthquake zone.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: Staying in touch through walkie-talkies, the convoy heads north. Stuck to the outside of each car is a large red sticker with bright yellow Chinese characters proclaiming who they are - Christians helping the disaster zone. Just to be safe, however, the leader of the group says simply to call him Brother John.

Brother JOHN: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: We've organized all of it ourselves, he says. People are very pleased with what the government has done, but there is so much need.

Brother JOHN: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: As to whether it's legal, he adds, I didn't think the government really has time to think about that at the moment.

Brother JOHN: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: The Chinese Government is traditionally very wary of non-governmental organizations or public activism of any sort, what's sometimes known as civil society. Beijing likes to keep everything under its own control. But the combination of newfound wealth, newly built infrastructure, newfound patriotism, and in this case newfound space has brought volunteers from all over China to help for free.

Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

GIFFORD: Two hours later, members of the group are singing hymns with a small congregation whose own church building was badly damaged in the earthquake. The service takes place among the emergency tents in the open air.

Brother JOHN: (Speaking foreign language)

Amen.

Unidentified Group: Amen.

GIFFORD: Brother John sweats in the heat as he preaches on Paul's letter to the Philippians, and he ends the service with a long series of prayers.

Brother JOHN: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

Brother JOHN: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: After the service, the visitors unload some of the food and clothes they've brought. Then they climb into their cars and head out to the countryside, where earthquake damaged has been ever worst.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: Outside the empty shell of what was once their farmhouse, peasants line up for bags of food and clothing.

Ms. CHEN(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: A smiling farmer called Mrs. Chen thanks the group for their donation, echoing the gratitude of everyone in her village and all the villages that Brother John and his friends visit this afternoon. You can see the sheer thrill that John and his colleagues get from what they're doing.

Brother JOHN: (Speaking foreign language)

GIFFORD: Certainly the earthquake has brought us a lot of new space to organize, he says; though he adds that he has no idea if this sort of activity will still be allowed once the emergency has eased.

As he and his friends pile back into their cars and head for the city, they and the other thousands of volunteers may now present a very real long-term problems for Beijing. It's all very well when the organizing is fully supportive of the government. But what if at some future date it were not? And once people have tasted such empowerment, such freedom to organize, such participation - can you ever really take that away from them?

Rob Gifford, NPR news, Chengdu, China.

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