Last year’s earthquake, which provoked a tsunami of sudden sympathy and solidarity in China, has proved to be the catalyst for deeper social changes. “It has strengthened a sense of civil society,” says Han Junkui, who has studied activity by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Sichuan over the past year. “Society’s enthusiasm for earthquake-hit areas has changed from a passionate attitude to a rational one… The level of enthusiasm does not compare with a year ago, but it definitely still exists.”
Dr. Han points to “the unprecedented scale of donations, the fact that NGOs have become much more professional, and the way they are working with the government and with each other” as signs of how individuals and civic groups, independent of the ruling Communist Party, are expanding their influence.
Warnings for troublemakers
They would be well advised to do so cautiously, however. “You have to be strategic in highlighting sensitive issues without irritating government officials,” explains Wen Bo, a rising young environmental activist. “If you are seen as a troublemaker … they will shut your mouth and shut you down,” he warns. “NGOs working to improve Chinese society should not work as if they are in the United States.”