Four years ago I was working on a Master of Education paper (critiquing OLPC, I think) when I saw a headline about an earthquake outside of Chengdu. A little later I went out to a Lanzhou lamian restaurant (often called ‘Muslim noodles” by expats) and read internet updates on my tiny Nokia candybar phone while trying to communicate with the restaurant staff the enormity of what was happening. Even in the first hour it was clear how huge this was and I think even then the death toll was estimated at more than 10,000. Now it stands at between eighty to ninety thousand dead, but we’ll never know because the Chinese government refuses to make the list public.
I had already volunteered to work with a Chengdu-based international NGO that summer on a minority education project deep in the mountains of Sichuan with the Yizu. I had met their director at the 2007 Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong conference. I received word shortly after the earthquake that they were going to concentrate all of their resources on the earthquake and that I was more than welcome to come out and help with that instead. And so it was to be that I would come in early June and volunteer with them for a month.
It was an interesting time in China’s development. The lead-up to the Olympics was kicking off and I think everybody was expecting greater openness and political freedom than ever before. This was China’s “coming out” party, so to speak. But it seems like everything got off track, and quickly. First was it was a Tibetan race riot against the Han in Lhasa followed by a violent crackdown. Then came Chinese anger at reactions to that crackdown, including an incident in France where an Olympic torch runner was knocked over. Thus was born anti-CNN.com and students wearing t-shirts to class that read, in English, “stop Western media lies!” It was probably the only time in my four years in the mainland that I truly felt uncomfortable being there because of my nationality. At a lunch with other foreign teachers my boss at the time told us, “I think I can say for the first time that I don’t like foreigners.”
Then the earthquake came and seemed to get things back on track, if only for a moment. China opened her doors and relief and sympathy poured in from around the globe. But things quickly changed, again. “Tofu” buildings became the story as we learned that terribly built schools collapsed on top of students. There were pictures in the NY Times showing a collapsed school when everything around it, including a newer school for wealthier (often cadre) students, stood unharmed. NGOs were restricted. Activists and the parents of dead students were harassed and arrested. I forget who it was, but while I was in Chengdu one dissident asking questions about the dead children was arrested and placed in front of a TV and forced to watch the rescue relief broadcasts until he “regained his patriotism” while I was there. I think I was also there when Ai Weiwei got beat up by the Chengdu police for trying to collect the names of the dead children (whose birthdays now dominate his Twitter feed).
When I got out there I was noticing some weird quirks about the program I was volunteering with. It seemed altogether kind of pointless and we were working in relatively unaffected areas. By unaffected, I mean the village only had one or two dead when villages a few miles away had deaths in the hundreds or thousands. I would see rich opportunities for impact but was often told “those are government problems.” Then something crazy happened: the government of Dujiangyan shut the NGOs program down for a few days. The problem? They wanted to launch an investigation on them because I was with them. And what was the problem with me? I was white.
I went back and wrote my Master’s thesis on my experiences there. I tried to build a theory explaining what I saw. The results are now published in the International Journal of Educational Development as Disaster, civil society and education in China: A case study of an independent non-government organization working in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake (download here). The argument I make was that the earthquake can really be seen as the beginning of a much larger crackdown on civil society that continues today.
One of the things I learned, and go to length on in the paper, was how authoritarianism worked in the real world. I think as an American I originally came at China’s authoritarianism from a rule of law perspective – that limits to freedoms were clear “lines in the sand” and came through law. A sort of “thou shalt not speak ill of or compete with thy leaders.” What I learned in my research was how implicitly embedded power relations were. Independent NGOs weren’t illegal, for instance, they just weren’t allowed to legally register and almost everything they did was illegal (especially fundraising). That type of power was a lot more effective because it seeped into every decision the NGO I studied made. The “lines in the sand” are a lot more personal than legal. Anger the wrong powerful person and a world of legal pain would come down on you. A court could suddenly start asking how, exactly, did $100,000 get in your personal bank account from an international wire transfer and why didn’t you pay taxes on it? Are you a spy or just a fraud?
And all of this saddens me. I wish that wasn’t the “take away” from my study. The earthquake was a great opportunity for the development of civil society in China that was never fully actualized. There were amazing networks that popped up, like 512ngo.org. There was great coordination. Civil society and NGOs were “crossing a river by feeling the stones” – and a lot of stones had just landed in front of them from which to learn how to get to the other side. The other side being working in harmony with the Communist Party to get things done, bringing issues to attention and resolving them together. I truly believe that the Party and civil society don’t need to be as antagonistic of each others’ existence as the Party assumes. I think rules can be written into law that separate the very different functions of an education and a human rights NGO. Instead, where most governments demand a monopoly on violence the Party demands a monopoly on political association – and everything is political in a country where the Party infiltrates every ‘legitimate’ non-commercial organization. And so those issues sit, simmering in the background.