Post-Quake Activist Networks Spread in China

Cao has had a rough week and is losing his voice, which rasps from shouting into his mobile phone. As we talk outside Deyang city hospital, he taps a water bottle against his knee and takes constant calls. It's 6:30 p.m. and the DEC Group marketing executive hasn't eaten since breakfast, but thanks to his incessant calling, some 1,500 homeless workers from the Dongfang Turbine Factory now have food and shelter. "Most [of them] have nothing, just clothes and no money," he says.

Cao, a tall, wiry man in his 50s, is part of DEC Group's senior management team. He doesn't want to give his full name as he has not sought permission to talk to us, but he is willing to discuss the earthquake's terrible aftermath. When the quake hit last Monday, it demolished not only some of the Dongfang Turbine Factory works (designed to withstand a 7.0 quake) but also the factory's primary, middle, and technical training schools in the Sichuan mountain town of Hanwang.

Cao wasn't in Hanwang at the time. I first saw him at the Beijing airport the morning after the quake, yelling into his phone as we waited for the airport in Chengdu to reopen, about 50 miles from Hanwang. "I've got a ticket but I can't fly … Put all your work down and try to go back. We have to work," he yelled. Around him on airport bucket chairs, passengers watched him obliquely, their faces swollen with pity. "Everything's very messed up," he told me then. His family was unhurt, but he knew of other losses, including a friend's daughter who'd had both her legs amputated. "The company directors and local government are all at the site trying to save people … The situation is very serious," he said.

Two days later I met up with Cao again, this time in Sichuan. In that time he had fixed up a tent city and warehouse accommodation for Dongfang Turbine's worker refugees by using local government aid and commandeering sites from other units of DEC Group in nearby Deyang city. The tent—really tarpaulins spread over scaffolding—is 500 yards long and open-fronted. Situated outside the warehouse gates, it offers no privacy and little shelter from the rainy season, which is just starting. But in many ways this tent is a symbol, an emblem that underscores a wave of citizen activism gripping Sichuan as quake survivors try to rush life-saving necessities to those who have lost even more.

The homeless here are cared for by a network of 200 volunteers who bring daily food and other basics. Many are DEC workers from sister companies, but others are high school and college students. "They come from all parts of society," says Cao. "None of these people knew each other, and I didn't know any of them," he adds, grinning at a group ladling out soup and rice from a white van.

Similar impromptu community networks are springing up throughout the disaster zone to supplement the government's relief efforts. Long before web 2.0, Chinese people kept in touch with a slew of home town, school and work buddies to help smooth the way to personal goals in this connections-driven society. Those private networks are now pouring aid into the quake zones, taking public action in ways that would be politically risky in more normal times. On the expressway outside Deyang we met a convoy of 200 migrant workers who've banded together to head back to their Sichuan villages from factory jobs on the east coast. "We're going to check on our families first … then join the rescue operation," said Wang Gang. They had called the local government, which had provided buses.

Much of it, however, is more informal, taking the form of collections at factories or colleges, or friends who set up convoys to drive food to pickup points. There is even a group of youngsters with homemade signs flagging down cars trying to hitch a ride to deliver clothes and food. At one point Cao's forever-shrilling mobile phone brings news from a friend at a power station in Shaanxi province. The workforce there wants to donate money and medication. DEC's Fujian branch has sent medicines too.

This community response has arisen because of the media openness that followed the quake. "In the old times we didn't even know when bad things happened," says Cao. "Bringing out information plays a great role in modern society. We should be open and truthful and stop the rumors."

The factory site in Hanwang was one of those visited by Premier Wen Jiabao during his tour of the disaster zone. Security there is tight; a company spokesman who gave his name only as Liu said no estimates of dead or missing were available, but there were 3,000 rescue workers. At least 10 senior engineers were meeting in the factory when the quake hit, according to Red Cross medic Deng Zhigang, 36, who worked to rescue them. Four were saved. They were from the turbine blades section, according to another source who did not wish to be named talking about the company. Dongfang Turbine Factory makes power station turbines and cooperates on nuclear power station equipment with GE Alstom, according to Cao. Siemens and Toshiba are also clients. The plant stands on steep ground, its site a legacy of Mao's policy of hiding important engineering plants in Sichuan's mountains during the cold war era. According to Liu small earthquakes are common; there's an aftershock as he speaks.

Cao has nothing but praise for the premier's visit ("The government is close to the people and feels their pain") and the speed and frankness of the government's response. "The central government and the local government responded very fast, and the news is open and out, and this is good for Chinese society," he says. That kind of praise is good for the government, but it does carry some long-term risks for China's Communist rulers. The community response has shown residents that the people have power of their own—and they could mobilize further if there are are any delays, flaws, or corruption in the relief effort.

For now, though, Cao has more immediate concerns. He worries how long the homeless can endure their stay under the tarpaulins. "It's uncertain how long they'll have to stay [in Deyang]," he says. "Maybe half a year, maybe a year." For them the earthquake aftershocks aren't likely to end anytime soon.

Post-Quake Activist Networks Spread in China | World