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A milestone year for China's volunteers
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18:53, July 04, 2008

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· 8.0 Richter scale earthquake hits SW China
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Wang Jianhong, a 42-year-old maintenance man in north China's Shanxi Province, has worked as volunteer in Mianyang, one of the worst-hit areas in the May 12 earthquake, for 50 days.

He just wants to help, and he doesn't care what it costs. And it has already cost him a lot. His story of temporarily quitting his job regardless of the economic losses would have been highly unusual before May 12. But something has happened in Chinese society after the quake. And that something is embodied in the 200,000 volunteers now working in quake relief.

Wang's wife Zhang Liqin went with him to Mianyang. She too was moved by what she saw when the earthquake struck. For both of them May 12 was a sleepless night. They wept together as they watched the tragedy unfold live on their TV set in their living room. They wanted to do something, and they wanted to do it immediately.

Transport was in chaos. The earthquake had smashed roads and broken rail lines. It took them a whole day and night to get to Mianyang's Jiuzhou Stadium. What they saw was shocking. The temporary shelter of the stadium had become home to 50,000 refugees. There, Wang joined the sterilizing team and his wife helped with relief goods distribution.

When they arrived local officials were frank with them. "Sorry we cannot spare any efforts to take care of you. You have to look after yourselves."

Sadly it was true.

They spent their first night beside a bridge, with no roof over their heads. They lived on biscuits, sausages, and water, with no hot rice or dishes. Only by end of May, when most of the homeless were evacuated from Jiuzhou Stadium, did they move into a tent and have cooked food.

They suffered medical problems too. Only a few days after arriving, Wang's legs swelled from long-time fatigue and his wife suffered heatstroke. Despite all that, they didn't leave.

In order to be a volunteer in the quake-hit areas, Wang had to ask for a two-month leave the first quarter of which was his annual leave and the remaining days "leave for personal reasons".

According to the regulations of Wang's employer, Jincheng Anthracite Mining Group, the leave would cost him around 5,000 yuan (728 U.S. dollars), twice his monthly salary.

Despite the cost, the Wangs think of the volunteer work as "the best thing we have ever done in our lives".

"Those people need us"

Previously in China, relief work on large-scale natural disasters was exclusively organized by the government, sending out military forces and teams with professional workers assembled from all over the country.

Later, "volunteer" seemed to be a term with fashionable implications, primarily linked with young college students gaining interesting work experience at large events or welfare homes.

But this time it was different. Most of the volunteers made up their mind simply because "those people need us".

Chen Dajiang, general manager at a car rental company in Shanghai, headed for Sichuan alone with his cash and home-stored medicine, giving as his motivation how he "fully understood the misery" from his own experience in the 1995 Kansai earthquake in Japan measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale.

A group of ten farmers from east China's Shandong Province drove their own motor tricycle for four days and three nights to finally reach Sichuan. They each took with them some of their very limited family savings, amounting to 5,000 yuan (728 U.S. dollars)in total.

After arriving at a town in Mianyang, they immediately started rescue work and lived on the 50 kg pancakes and some 20 small bags of preserved vegetables they brought from home.

"We almost never saw those Shandong volunteers take any rest during all this time," said a local villager. But the farmers didn't stop, "We don't have much money to donate. But we can at least do some physical work."

Besides these "voluntary" volunteers who went to the front by themselves, some were organized by NGOs. By end of May, more than 120 NGOs took part in volunteer organizing.

Grassroots NGOs such as Roots & Shoots, 1kg, and NGOCN set up a temporary office on quake relief the second day the earthquake struck, aiming at a better organization of volunteer work and relief distribution.

"Thank you volunteers"

Volunteer's performance in quake-hit areas has gained support from leadership and society.

Chinese president Hu Jintao gave his blessing when he had a chat with volunteers while inspecting Beichuan County, in mid May, saying thanks for the volunteer's contribution to the post-quake work.

The volunteerss work has moved the quake-affected people. In Mianzhu city, along with some other quake-hit areas, local citizens erected boards besides highways saying "Thank you volunteers".

The more than 200,000 volunteers who are working and have worked in quake-hit areas are from all the walks of life, from private entrepreneurs to white-collar workers, from doctors to teachers, from technical workers to "post 80's" students.

They are mostly self-organized, and in quake-hit areas they did whatever people needed them to do - carrying, feeding and nursing the injured, helping local people find family relatives, sterilizing rubble and ruins, and helping transport and deliver disaster relief materials.

Cyberspace has commented in detail on the volunteer phenomenon.

Some online articles heralded 2008 a milestone year for China's volunteers, saying that Chinese volunteers made a group debut after the May 12 quake, a showcase of awakened citizenship awareness after a 30-year-long reform and opening up period.

An online article written by Gu Dengning said that after 30 years of reform and opening-up, many Chinese live a quite affluent life.

He said: "And the more important change is that our minds have become unfettered, our horizons broadened. people's social values can be realized in the broader sphere. Against such a background, to be a volunteer has become the aim of some Chinese, as they believe that to do so is the way to a lifestyle full of happiness."

While other articles raised some sincere suggestions for future volunteer activities.

An article from www.legaldaily.com.cn saying that volunteers had better provide their services according to the demand of quake-hit areas.

"We should firstly make clear what kinds of professionals the quake-affected areas need and send volunteers accordingly. For example, in the reconstruction phase, the quake-hit areas need volunteers major in construction, engineering, psychological counseling, etc. If volunteers with such skills go, the volunteer's service will be more efficient," the article said.

The government is moving to more formally organize volunteers and their work. Currently, government departments are considering to set up a long-term volunteer work system, including launching aunified volunteer database compiling volunteer emergency response plans and training volunteers.

Source: Xinhua

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