The Destructive Earthquake That Gave China’s Charities New Life
This article is part of a series about the Wenchuan earthquake, which left more than 80,000 people dead or missing in May 2008.
SICHUAN, Southwest China — On a Sunday morning in Baishu Village, dozens of residents run, giggling, past cornfields and tea plantations. They need to make their way to an open space where they will be safe from natural disasters. “Run faster!” the village’s Party secretary yells at the crowd. With his blue protective coveralls hanging halfway down his shoulders in the hot sun, he, too, is struggling to keep from laughing.
Remote Chinese towns and villages must be able to survive on their own in the first hours or even days after an earthquake, when rescue teams might not be able to traverse roads cut off by debris. Baishu is one of 32 villages in the area where the One Foundation, a charity founded by movie star Jet Li, is training locals to stay safe and rescue one another.
“We try to make it fun — otherwise, villagers won’t participate in the drill next time,” says Yu Dong, a project officer at the One Foundation. Scripts are prepared for every drill. To best simulate the chaos of a real emergency, they sometimes secretly select villagers to act like thieves or pretend to be in mental distress.
Eighteen villagers — mostly middle-aged, as many young people have left for cities — have been appointed Baishu’s rescue team. As part of the drill, they must come to the aid of an “injured” person who has broken his arm. Wearing matching coveralls, the team jumps in a truck and speeds away to the man’s hilltop house. There, they clumsily put his arm in a sling and carry him away on a stretcher.
The training session is just one example of the lasting impact of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, the country’s worst natural disaster in four decades. Besides the destruction it left in its wake, its legacy is as much defined by the charity it inspired. Soon after the earthquake struck, volunteers and donations poured into the hardest-hit areas in Sichuan province from all over the country. Overall charitable donations reached 100 billion yuan (then $14.7 billion) for the year — triple the figure from the previous year.
“It was the first time in China’s history that both government and society witnessed the incredible power of charity,” says Wang Zhenyao, head of the China Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University and former director of the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ Department of Disaster Relief. But, Wang explains, this burst of NGO activity didn’t come out of nowhere. Three years earlier, the Chinese government started drafting its Charity Law, signaling its desire to welcome more contributions from private actors.
Charity’s First Year
A decade ago, there were few credible private charities, and more than 80 percent of donations went to the government. Similarly, when a strong earthquake hit northwestern China’s Qinghai province in 2010, all donations had to be handed over to the local government. But a then-thriving online civil society movement reacted strongly when a young woman flaunted her wealth online and falsely claimed to manage an organization under the state-backed Red Cross Society of China. The damage to the Red Cross’ reputation pushed people to donate to private charities. In 2013, when an earthquake hit Ya’an, a city in Sichuan, the One Foundation received a record amount of money.
Looking back, many point to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake as the catalyst for change. Media call it “charity’s first year.” The number of foundations in China shot up, from 1,331 in 2008 to more than 6,300 in 2018. In 2016, China introduced its first charity law, which promises tax benefits to charitable organizations and emphasizes transparency. “In the past, most disaster donations simply went to the government. We didn’t consider the aid from NGOs. At most, we would solicit public donations by publishing the bank account numbers of three bodies: the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China Charity Federation, and Red Cross — that’s all,” Wang says.
To NGOs, the earthquake was an unfortunate yet opportune moment to show what they had to offer. Sichuan’s major rail connection was down, but just a month earlier, a highway had opened. Private transport by road was easy to organize and badly needed. More than a million volunteers, 300 NGOs, and all sorts of gifted relief supplies found their way to the affected areas.
But all that help lacked coordination. Some food donations went bad before recipients could be located. In heavily affected Beichuan Qiang Autonomous County, 220,000 blankets were donated for a total population of 160,000 people. Some groups seemed more interested in planting a flag bearing their logo than actually contributing. Lu Fei, 35, and his hiker friends decided to help out. Lu remembers that in the days after the earthquake, many volunteers and NGOs had no clear idea of what to do or where to go.
Now, NGOs have professionalized, and governance of the charity sector has also advanced. Besides his day job, Lu is now in charge of the 440-member Sichuan chapter of Blue Sky Rescue, China’s largest private rescue organization. Lu says the differences between today and 10 years ago are striking. When, last year, an earthquake struck Jiuzhaigou, a nature reserve in Sichuan, Blue Sky Rescue received a preliminary report from the government with information about the area and the quake so the team knew what kind of equipment to bring. They were on the road in less than 45 minutes. When they arrived, privately organized rescue teams were told to contact the government command center to be assigned their search area or other tasks. To avoid crowding and other risks, tourists inside the park were evacuated first, before NGOs were allowed in. The government in 2012 and 2014 set up standards for rescue operations, to which NGOs are expected to adhere — though Lu complains this isn’t always the case.
In Deyang, one of the cities in Sichuan heavily affected by the 2008 disaster, elementary school students sit quietly through an animated video of a panda teaching his hamster friend what to do in case of a quake. “Oh, earthquake! Oh, be calm! Protect the head, don’t jump from buildings!” he sings. With local media in tow, an NGO, Taitian Cultural Charity Center, has come to the school to deliver an emergency response workshop — an occasion for which the children have been issued brand-new school uniforms.
After the video, the NGO’s director, Yang Jie, continues the earthquake training with a demonstration, showing how to put a school bag over her head and squat underneath a desk. “Don’t go back to the classroom thinking that your money is still there,” she warns.
Whether in remote villages or cities, knowing what to do in an earthquake significantly increases people’s chances of survival. Yang, a 52-year-old with short curly hair, knows this from experience. She previously worked as an earthquake prevention and disaster risk reduction assistant, a government post. Before 2008, “people didn’t really believe there could be big disasters — they’d say, ‘The Tangshan earthquake was a long time ago,’” Yang says, referring to a quake that hit in 1976, a politically tumultuous time, and as such was kept out of the media. For many Chinese, seeing the tragic photos widely published by media in 2008 marked the first time they realized the devastating power of earthquakes.
As a first responder following the Wenchuan earthquake, Yang saw signs of people’s lack of preparedness everywhere. A few hours after the quake struck, she was sent to a nearby elementary school, a six-story building of which the lower three floors had collapsed with hundreds of children inside. As the ruins were dug out, many bodies were found piled up behind classroom doors — a sign, Yang says, that the panicked children had crowded around and blocked the exits. Many schools have implemented safety training over the last decade, some through NGOs like Yang’s.
In the government’s narrative, the earthquake presents a China that repeatedly suffered and yet overcame misfortune as a united nation with a strong will. The remaining ruins of Beichuan are now a patriotism education site, and a pig that famously survived being buried under the ruins for 36 days was named “Zhu Jianqiang,” or “Strong Pig,” and is living out her days in a museum.
Voices that challenge this narrative are not welcome. Many locals are convinced that low-quality construction exacerbated the death toll of the 2008 earthquake. In the aftermath, parents demanded to know why school buildings had collapsed and buried their children, while most of the surrounding buildings were left standing. The Chinese government acknowledged later in the year that a rush to build schools during the country’s economic boom might have led to substandard construction. But activist Tan Zuoren, who investigated the student death toll, was imprisoned for five years for “inciting subversion of state power.” A decade later, the topic remains taboo.
In the years since, the government has improved building codes and their enforcement. In Ya’an, the 2008 earthquake killed 28 and injured more than 1,300. Afterward, many school buildings were either rebuilt or strengthened. When the 2013 earthquake hit close to the city, “the buildings were almost entirely unharmed,” says Yu of the One Foundation.
But whereas urban buildings are more strictly regulated, homeowners in the remote countryside can build their houses however they want. Yu says the One Foundation found structural problems in many houses that had collapsed during earthquakes. “Some people installed large windows in the load-bearing walls of their houses; some even placed the bricks the wrong way, standing on the narrow side,” he says.
Ou Shujun, 45, drives a van to ferry people between Baishu Village and Ya’an. He remembers that he was eating noodles in the city when the 2013 quake hit. Part of his single-story wood-and-brick home in the village collapsed. Because of his family’s financial situation, he qualified for support from the One Foundation. The organization funded a new lightweight steel frame, invented by Taiwanese architect Hsieh Ying-chun to make private homes more earthquake-resistant.
Gu Linsheng, a professor who works with the Sichuan provincial government on disaster risk reduction, recalls talking to children who experienced earthquakes that hit the region in 2013 and 2014. One boy said he saw roof tiles fall from the building, so he grabbed a quilt and crouched beneath a table. Another first made sure his younger brother was safe before finding a secure spot himself. To Gu, the children’s behavior demonstrated immense progress from years earlier. “I was so moved,” he says.
Gu points to another element of self-rescue training that has proved valuable: villagers keeping an eye out for potential natural disasters. A recent landslide in a village in Wenchuan County hit 122 houses, but because of an alert villager, everyone was evacuated ahead of time, and nobody got hurt.
But, Gu warns, governments shouldn’t just focus on telling people how to run or seek shelter. “They disregard the most basic bottom line of preventing danger, which is to build quality houses,” he says. “We should reflect carefully on these past 10 years. Training is important, but strengthening buildings is crucial.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Vertical image: Ou Shujun’s family pose for a photo at their new house in Baishu Village, Sichuan province, Nov. 25, 2013. Courtesy of the One Foundation)
(Header image: A rescue team practices using fire extinguishers in Baishu Village, Sichuan province, April 29, 2018. Lin Qiqing/Sixth Tone)