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Voice: NGOs take the stage in China
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By Huang Zhangjin

If I was asked what the oldest established concept is, my answer would definitely be this: People in developed areas care more about money than emotions, making them indifferent towards others, whereas people in undeveloped areas value traditions and morals, thus making them warm-hearted.

But the facts don't lie. After the Wenchuan quake, I was able to speak with volunteers who devoted themselves to disaster relief efforts. During the (Olympic) torch relay reports, I also paid special attention to volunteers in various areas. Their selfless sacrifices impressed me.

Twenty years ago, many workers in eastern part of the country declared, "We came to make money, not volunteer." This left a terrible impression on the whole nation that people from developed areas were just a mass of selfish moneygrubbers. However, it is in the developed areas that volunteers with a high awareness of social service first appeared – they are the most organized.

We can say that those coastal areas are developed not only in "material civilization" but also in "spiritual civilization." We cannot say that their words exactly fit the standards of "spiritual civilization" since their values are not consistent with tradition, but their actions, in my opinion, are definitely significant.

Many people complain that the moral level of society is degenerating, and that the degree of civilization is decreasing. But actually, considering that people did not have the freedom of choice, the so-called "age of high morals" 30 years ago did not embody the real moral level of that time. What it reflected was just the degree of restriction. The true moral level is revealed when external restrictions are removed.

Civilization is the integrity of self-awareness. The appearance of non-government organizations with youths as the main body is the result of free choices made by individuals. They are neither the products of official mobilization, nor the target of official restraints. Therefore, civilization is reflected in a more real and candid way by today's volunteers rather than past generations.

Apparently, this self-awareness is related to the degree of social prosperity. Sima Qian, an ancient Chinese historian, said, "More affluent, more benevolent." As for the growth of volunteer organizations, I think what really matters is the local government's management concept. Take some resource-based cities in north China and some middle-and-small cities in south China, for example, the former's respective per capita income is much higher, but their performances are less satisfying, while the latter's volunteer organizations are more active, and no less enthusiastic than those of coastal cites.

What I have seen in Huizhou demonstrates the effect of cooperation between governmental institutions and volunteer organizations. To make the Huizhou leg of the Olympic torch relay successful, a group of volunteers started collecting donations, which they used to buy 10,000 or so national flags. These national flags were then distributed from door to door along the torch relay route. The volunteers patiently told the locals when and how to fly them, and then took them back as soon as the leg was finished. Finally, they passed these national flags to volunteers of Xiamen, the next leg of the torch relay.

Their activities were strongly supported by the local governments. The local government even asked the volunteers to help hand out cultural shirts. The national flag volunteers were not only allowed to enter the torch site, but also given the task of maintaining order. This explicit interaction between the local government and volunteer organizations played a remarkable role in the torch relay.

More non-government organizations and volunteers were involved in the disaster relief efforts right after the Wenchuan quake. Their speedy response and great emergency-response capability astounded the world. To some extent, their efforts remedied the defects of the local governments' performance. During this special period, the once-ignored non-government organizations presented themselves on stage in a unique way and demonstrated their astonishing power.

So far, China's non-government organizations are not yet matured. The symbolic meaning of self-consciousness and social responsibility they demonstrate is more influential than its actual presence. Even in the Information Age, it is not so easy for civil communities to get in touch with each other because of their vague legal status. This defect was obvious in the quake relief efforts. The lack of a stable channel and an intercourse platform left some communities almost "blind" – they could neither coordinate with communities in other areas, nor cooperate with those in the same area, even though they themselves had rigorous labor division and a strict work style.

To a great extent, organization and mobilization ability demonstrate the degree of a state's modernization. It is a pity that in the course of lifting the state from disunity and decline, China has erroneously considered both of these abilities exclusive to the government.

In a modern society, both volunteer organizations and official organizations are important. All the issues concerning healthy personalities, social morals, true love for the nation and people, a harmonious society, and national pride, etc., are "civilizations" that we have been cherishing all the time. They are not only the products of a certain education or a tradition, but also of the citizen's harmonious coexistence with society and stable intercourse with other individuals.

The remarkable disaster relief effort after the Wenchuan quake displays the strong sense of responsibility of the Chinese people. Their shortcomings are exposed, but undoubtedly, their tenacity and patriotic enthusiasm will make you full of confidence in China.

 Author: Huang Zhangjin, 35 years old, is a news reporter, former subeditor of Elite Reference, editor and editorial department director of Phoenix Weekly.

(China.org.cn translated by Fan Junmei, June 17, 2008)

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