I wanted to bring to your attention two news stories from this week that highlight the significant role the Chinese public is having in the nation’s response to their major earthquake and how this may have a major impact on citizen involvement in their government generally.
The lead story by Maureen Fan on the Washington Post’s front page Thursday, “Citizen Groups Step Up In China described how: “Grass-roots organizations and informal networks of private citizens are playing a vital role in getting supplies to rescue workers and survivors of this month’s devastating earthquake in China.”
…aided by the proliferation of online bulletin boards, blogs and on-the-ground coordination centers, unregistered grass-roots organizations are essentially functioning as legitimate earthquake-relief NGOs, operating for the first time without having to look over their shoulders and helping to manage a crisis whose death toll could surpass 80,000.
According to the Post, this may not not only change the way the Chinese respond to disaster but may be a catalyst for empowering citizen groups and individual citizens in general:
Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and a Chinese media expert at the University of California at Berkeley, said some smaller, unregistered NGOs had teams of volunteers in the quake zone almost as fast as the military had troops there. “Many self-organized social networks are not formal organizations, but altogether their numbers, resources and role in society is much larger than what the government has officially allowed in the past,” Xiao said.
So far, authorities seem pleased with the mobilization, which includes many first-time volunteers and members of social groups such as car clubs and outdoor sports organizations…“From this disaster, the government has come to realize the power of the grass roots,” Guo said. “This power will be helpful in establishing and managing a real civil society. But the problem is how to allow the grass-roots groups to take part in an orderly way. Taxi drivers used to be considered the least-educated and least-civilized group, but they were the first to respond to the disaster, organizing themselves to drive the injured to hospitals.”
And a piece by NPR’s Anthony Kuhn, “China Taps Citizen Volunteers to Dole Quake Aid further raised the possibility that this could have another impact on public involvement in their government:
Since the devastating earthquake in southwestern China, hundreds of Chinese have volunteered to oversee the distribution of disaster relief funds and supplies. The aim is to prevent corrupt local officials from embezzling the funds. Although it is not clear how much power the volunteers have, observers say the experiment could increase public participation in anti-corruption efforts.
To me, the Chinese experience just reinforces the role that the American public should and will have when we suffer another catastrophic disaster. I also believe that a commitment to emergency preparedness can have also have the catalytic (though somewhat different) effect here of sparking a new spirit of civic engagement and bringing us more together as country.