Is Charity Changing China? (Part 2)

Unofficial NGOs are sprouting up everywhere in China. Christian churches and Buddhist groups are using their networks in Sichuan to deliver aid and place volunteers. Internet campaigns to raise money are multiplying. Countless other volunteer groups in the earthquake zone are providing medical care, counseling or child care for orphaned children.

Twenty-three year-old Li Peng is a good example. The Sichuan native set up a Web site that accepts donations of goods. Mr. Li emailed friends asking for donations of medicine, receiving such an enthusiastic response that he set up the Web site. Two weeks later he and his friends had distributed 500,000 yuan ($71,906) worth of medicine and biscuits, with an additional 1.5 million yuan worth of goods on the way. Chinese drug companies such as Tibet Senlong donated most of the goods, and DHL and Juneyao, a Chinese airline, provided free transport. The donations were delivered to provincial or township-level authorities by local volunteers.

But how long will the party allow the informal organizations to flourish? Although the majority of them see their work as an extension of the government's efforts – Mr. Li, for example, ensured that government certificates were received for all goods delivered – not all of the groups will be so benign.

Already, parents of children who died in poorly constructed school buildings have organized marches and clashed with police.

The administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen is unlikely to choose more freedom. Over the past two years, it has tightened restrictions on NGOs considerably; obtaining the permissions to register a new NGO has become all but impossible. More likely the state will try to co-opt this civic energy.

Philanthropy was already starting to take off in China before the earthquake hit. Twenty-seven Chinese philanthropists individually donated 100 million yuan or more to charity last year, up from 15 who donated that amount in 2006, according to the Hurun Report. A week after the quake, Hurun reported that China's 100 richest individuals had already donated more than $130 million for the victims.

[Excerpt of an editorial by Lesley Hook, The Wall Street Journal]

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