On the morning of August 2, 2008, Zhang Yijun and I set off from Chengdu in a rickety old car. Two hours later we stood among simple wooden buildings and tents, which served as temporary shelter for the population of Pengzhou city’s Zhongba village. The village had been wiped off the map by the Sichuan earthquake. Since the tremor struck during the day, everyone was out working in the fields and there was no one hurt by the collapsing buildings. However, tens of the thousands of villagers were buried by landslides.
When the earthquake struck and killed almost 100,000 people on May 12, I was in the United States. I rushed to my computer to ask Lu Zhi: “What can you do to help?”
Lu is a professor at Peking University and the founder of the Shanshui Conservation Centre. This NGO has its headquarters in Beijing, and works to encourage grassroots nature conservation by identifying and propagating environmentally friendly practices. Among other areas, the organisation works in the panda reserves of Sichuan and Gansu, the areas worst hit by the quake. Lu said he was in urgent talks with colleagues about helping the mountain villages that the government could not reach. This made sense because although the news media were giving plenty of coverage to the areas receiving full government support, thousands upon thousands were still suffering unseen in small and remote villages.
The growth of China’s NGOs has been limited, as some government organisations are not keen on the existence of independent voices. But many NGOs arrived on the scene in response to inadequate government efforts. This is the first time they had played a major role in a tragedy. I wanted to see what the NGOs could do for the victims, so I returned to China and visited Sichuan in late July. At this point, government and media attention was focused on the Olympics, and those affected by the quake seemed to have been quickly forgotten.
Zhang Yijun had already worked with quake victims for a month after the disaster. She walked towards a large tent, where several men stood up from their television-watching and welcomed her. This is Shanshui’s Post-Disaster Ecological Civilisation Reconstruction Centre.
According to Zhang, once the immediate crisis had passed, Shanshui started considering mid- and long-term assistance.
At the end of May, Tian Li and colleagues from the organisation’s Chengdu office arrived at the reconstruction centre. They had worked here previously with the White Water River Nature Reserve, encouraging the local people to protect biodiversity. They wanted to do something to help the badly hit communities, including the village of Zhongba.
Zhang came across a newspaper that was several days old. Although it had been neatly folded up, it was clear that it has been read repeatedly. The headlines asked: “Isn’t this the worst-hit area? Why isn’t the army here? What about our friends and relatives?” Anxious questions abounded, but with power cut off by the earthquake, there were no news reports to watch. Mobile phones were out of power, so there was no way to contact friends or family. And it was planting season – which the farmers could not afford to let slip by – but there were no seeds or fertiliser, or information on what to plant.
It was as if they were living in an information black hole.
Zhang says: “The earthquake broke the connections between people. Now drinking water, food, clothes, even toilets, are all communal. Everyone is living collectively again. Material help is not enough to build a harmonious society. Some villages have even seen violence break out over the distribution of that assistance. How can that be harmonious? What can we NGOs do to help?”
Shanshui’s first decision? “We need electricity.” With help from Wu Guolin, head of the nature reserve’s local conservation station, they bought in a generator and television, and the locals gathered in a tent to watch the news. Now, instead of lying in their tents worrying about aftershocks as soon as night falls, the villagers have electric lights to help dispel their fears. They now could gather around the television or charge up their mobiles and talk to family and friends. Electricity has brought light and laughter back to the village.
Wu and Shanshui also organised a thirty-strong patrol team to distribute aid, move the elderly and children during dangerous rains and patrol the mountain to prevent poaching. Some nearby villages suffered thefts after the quake, but not Zhongba. There also have not been disputes over the fair distribution of aid. During the Dragon Boat Festival, the government provided extra pork to the villages. However, two neighbouring settlements refused the extra meat, fearing arguments would arise over its division. So Zhongba got their pork too, and had a feast.
According to Wu, the patrol team’s greatest achievement is providing the local people with a sense of belonging to a community. Since village reform started three decades ago, this is the first time they have felt proud to belong. This will be crucial for Zhongba's future harmony.
Beside the television tent is a library tent, also provided by Shanshui. There, next to a small square table, a 12-year-old village girl, Gong Lijuan, is reading with some other children. She picks up one book: “Let’s act out ‘The Seven Foxes’! But we only have six people ...” “I will help!” I said, and acted the part of the smallest fox, much to the children’s delight.
The library is another of Shanshui’s achievements. The villagers told Zhang that the school had collapsed and the children had no lessons to attend. The teachers were too frightened of earthquake aftershocks to let them play outside, and also were worried that the children would fall behind with their schoolwork. Could Shanshui help them catch up and have a safe and happy summer holiday?
Shanshui and Wu Guolin came up with several hundred books for a “book corner”, and the children instantly took to it. Shanshui also arranged for university students to help them with their homework, permitting their parents to attend to rebuilding and farming.
“Teacher Liu, can you lend a hand?” Zhang calls out to me. A number of volunteers are sitting around another table in the library tent. They want to start a community publication, but cannot decide what the content should be. Fortunately, they have a professional journalist on hand. “Excellent,” I say. “Now I can volunteer something too.”
Most of the volunteers are university students, but two are village high-school students: a 15-year-old boy called Li Zongrun and a 16-year-old girl, Chen Lu. Zhang explains that once Shanshui and the volunteers have left, the aim is to have villagers carry on the work. Therefore, one of the focal points of their work is training local people. The effects of this training are easy to see. There are volunteers from every age group, from the adults in the patrol team to children like Gong Lijuan and young adults like Chen Lu and Li Zongrun. It is extremely rare to see so many volunteers in a Chinese village. As Lu says: “Shanshui wants to use the knowledge of the people, to foster a civil society.”
Chen Lu is worried that if they print the villagers’ opinions – such as their discontent over government relief efforts – it will not do any good and only cause more discontent and upset the village committee. “We are locals; we do not want to do anything that will harm the village,” she says.
I explain the principle of balance, arguing that the villagers are not just readers, but should be the main focus of the newspaper. In other words, the editors should give full expression to everyone’s voice, and let these villagers see that they are respected.
Chen asked me to write a message for the volunteer tree. Cut from a sheet of green paper and hanging on the wall, it contains children’s wishes written on leaf-shaped pieces of paper. “I hope there will be no more disasters,” wrote Du Yu. “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” said Luo Zhongqiang. With all the different colours of paper, the tree seemed to blossom with hope.
The university student sitting opposite me, Feng Lulu, gives me a hand-sized piece of paper. Chen then scolded her for making it too big; these children know how precious a piece of paper is.
I wrote down my wish and added it to the tree: “We are all hopes, growing on a tree. I am glad to have found the tree of hope growing here.”
Liu Jianqiang, born in 1969, is a Beijing-based reporter.