Today's date:
Summer 2008

A Civil Society Emerges From the Earthquake Rubble

Guobin Yang is an associate professor at Barnard College and a visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore. He is the author of a forthcoming book, The Power of the Internet: Chinese Citizen Activism Online. This first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.

Singapore — The massive earthquake that hit China shook more than buildings. It loosened many of the restrictions that stood in the path of an emerging civil society. Disaster allowed citizens to join in a nationwide effort to comfort victims. Civil society, once confined to the virtual space of the Internet, has hit the ground in an unprecedented way.

Unusual alacrity and openness of the official Chinese media were a key factor. The quake hit at 2:28pm May 12, and China's Xinhua News Agency broke the news 18 minutes later. At 3:55pm, about an hour and a half after the quake, Xinhua reported that Party Secretary Hu Jintao had given instructions about emergency relief efforts and Premier Wen Jiabao was on his way to the earthquake region. Another half an hour later, military helicopters headed for the epicenter to help with rescue efforts. Thus began the most extensive and rapid national mobilization in recent Chinese history. Troops poured into the quake regions in an all-out rescue effort. Civilians from around the nation descended on the provincial capital Chengdu to offer help. National television provided round-the-clock live coverage.

Also remarkable were the scope of voluntary citizen organizing and the openness of civic communication. Citizen groups mobilized rapidly, both online and offline. On the day of the earthquake,, a popular online community, launched an online fundraising project in partnership with four other portal sites and Jet Li's One Foundation. By noon, May 15, the project had raised RMB 24 million (US $3.5 million) for disaster relief, mostly from online individual donations.

The day after the earthquake, several environmental and educational nongovernmental organizations in Beijing initiated a "Green Ribbon" campaign, with members and volunteers fanning out in the streets for fundraising and blood drives. On the same day, 57 civic groups issued a joint statement calling for concerted disaster relief efforts among all non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The same day, 51 other groups jointly established an office in Chengdu to coordinate NGO relief activities.

Much of the civic organizing was done through Web sites, mailing lists, blogs and online communities. For example,, a major information hub for Chinese NGOs, set up a special bulletin board for the NGO relief office in Chengdu to post announcements. The Internet proved crucial for timely, extensive and in-depth coverage. Large Web sites, both commercial and government-owned, set up special earthquake sections. Professional reporters and common citizens alike posted witness accounts in multimedia formats, with personal stories, images and digital videos of relief efforts filling cyberspace.

The openness of the media and the scale of civic organizing are unprecedented, along with the government's temporarily relaxed control of these two sensitive areas of Chinese life. It's tempting to view this as an exceptional case under exceptional circumstances. The earthquake was so destructive, one might reason, that the government simply could not afford to handle the disaster without mobilizing the public, and such mobilization depends on an open media environment. Myanmar's response to the recent cyclone suggests, however, that catastrophes alone are not a sufficient explanation.

Three other factors merit emphasis in China's case: First, the government's open media approach shows that Chinese leaders have learned lessons from previous events. Initial information control during the SARS crisis in 2003 and the toxic pollution of the Songhua River in 2005 created a social crisis. Rumors flourished. Fears struck deep. Under pressure, the Chinese government opened up information channels, restoring confidence and order in society.

Second, the open media environment produced immediate impact. It opened space not only for information, but also for expressing public sympathy. Many people stayed online for hours on end, seeking information, expressing grief and sharing tragic stories about victims and heroic tales about survivors, aid workers and soldiers digging in the rubble. Circulation of these stories of profound sadness and compassion generated a sense of national solidarity, which energized civic action.

Third and most importantly, the unprecedented scope of citizen participation was not a surprising turn of events, but rather the logical outcome of more than 10 years of small-scale but persistent grassroots citizen activism since the mid-1990s. Few of the various forms of civic action following the earthquake are new. Chinese NGOs are no stranger in using the Internet for organizing, fundraising, coordination and communication. In a 2003 survey of 129 NGOs, I found that 82 percent already had Internet connectivity, while only two organizations did not own a computer. Considering the rapid diffusion of the Internet during the past five years, Chinese NGOs undoubtedly reached even higher levels of connectivity and sophistication.

Furthermore, many NGOs involved in the relief efforts have been active for years. One of the 57 NGOs that issued the May 13 joint NGO statement was Han Hai Sha, literally meaning Oceans of Sand. The members of this small, unregistered environmental group have worked patiently, in low-profile fashion, on desertification and other environmental issues since 2002. Joining 50 other NGOs to set up the Chengdu relief office, is a Web-based organization in operation since 2004. Combining tourism with charity, it organizes young college students to carry "one more kilogram" when they travel to rural and poor regions. This one kilo could be books, stationery and other donations of use for rural schools.

Online communities contributed to civic mobilization, and these, too, are built over time., launched in 1999 and one of the most active online communities in the relief efforts, has built its huge customer base of millions of registered users by nurturing a culture of participation. Many users, of course, go online for socializing and entertainment. But Tianya is also known as a hotbed for online protest and other forms of activism.

Last but not least, Chinese citizens and NGOs alike were more aware than ever before of NGOs' potential role in Chinese society. The absence of NGOs during the snowstorm disaster early this year was keenly felt, suggesting widespread recognition of the NGO presence. Thus, as soon as the earthquake hit, NGO activists began to ask themselves: Shouldn't we do something this time around?

If the civic effervescence following the earthquake was indeed the outcome of a longer process rather than an anomaly under exceptional circumstances, it means that this activism is just another step in a prolonged process, albeit, perhaps, a bigger step than usual. Gauging the longer term impact is valuable, but perhaps it's more important to understand the many small steps along the way. The gradual and small changes in the past have not always been appreciated by outside observers, if only because many often remain under the radar of political analysts. To the extent that a virtual civil society arose after the earthquake, it did so on the basis of more than 10 years of civic activism.

The challenge for the Chinese government is whether it has the will to institutionalize the moral energy and social capital generated in the few weeks following the earthquake—and whether it has the will to institutionalize citizen participation and media openness. To some extent, this still depends on what new steps citizens will take. Some ad hoc citizen organizations established for the relief efforts already have plans to turn themselves into permanent disaster-relief organizations. The responses the groups receive from government agencies will convey intriguing messages if and when they apply for registration.

©2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization