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China Taps Citizen Volunteers to Dole Quake Aid

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China Taps Citizen Volunteers to Dole Quake Aid

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China Taps Citizen Volunteers to Dole Quake Aid

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to China, where the troubles in Sichuan Province won't let up. Two more aftershocks rattled the area yesterday, toppling more than 400,000 homes, and now whole villages have been evacuated for a fear of flooding. The quake's blocked rivers and created swollen lakes. Hundreds of thousands of people have now fled from the rising waters.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

Now for some good news from the region. In the two weeks since the earthquake struck, Chinese and foreign donors have contributed billions of dollars to the relief effort. To ensure that the funds actually get to the people who need them, local authorities in China have begun recruiting citizen volunteers to oversee the distribution of funds.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Chengdu, it's a rare opportunity for the Chinese public to have a little power over the government.

ANTHONY KUHN: Chinese history and literature are filled with tales of corrupt local officials who embezzled disaster relief funds sent from the central government. The problem has not exactly died out under communist rule.

But at the Sichuan Provincial Communist Party headquarter, an experiment appears to be underway. A young teacher in a prim black dress sits down with a clerk, surname Jung(ph), who registers her as a volunteer.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Your name is Shi Xiao, right, the clerk says, examining Ms. Shi's ID card. Right, says Xiao. You were born in 1981? Yes. What is your political affiliation? I'm a Communist Youth League member, Xiao answers. Xiao provides her work and home contacts and asks some questions. Mrs. Jung thanks her for her support.

Authorities have not yet explained exactly how the volunteers will monitor the distribution of relief funds and materials or what the extent of their authority will be. Shi Xiao has her own ideas about this.

Ms. SHI XIAO: (Through translator) It would be best if we could oversee the distribution of funds from the central government down to the province, the disaster areas, and finally into the hands of the earthquake victims, to see that they get what they're supposed to.

KUHN: Another party clerk who gives only her surname, Liao(ph), says the details will come later.

Ms. LIAO (Clerk): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Once they determine the nature of the work, the authorities will contact the would-be volunteers by phone, she says. Today we're just checking their identities. The next steps may include weighing their qualifications and training them. Since the government began recruiting on Monday, nearly a thousand volunteers have come in each day.

Even if they don't know exactly what they'll be doing, locals display the same sort of enthusiasm for this as they have about donating money and giving blood. Observers are cautiously optimistic that like the expanded role of the media and volunteers in earthquake relief efforts, this local experiment could herald wider citizen participation in politics. Again, clerk Liao.

Ms. LIAO: (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Historically the government has assumed a relatively greater share of the responsibility of oversight, she says. There have been instances of mobilizing the public for oversight in the past, but not on such a huge scale. We're trying to gradually expand the area for public participation in this type of oversight.

Critics say that the government usually presumes to oversee itself, and that whistleblowers do so at their own risk. The Communist Party's leaders have said they want to harness public oversight to curb government power, but usually this means checking the power of local officials, not their own.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Chengdu.

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