An Emerging Civil Society: The Impact of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake on Grassroots Civic Associations in China

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This article, [1] by Shawn Shieh[2] and Guosheng Deng,[3] discusses several areas in which the earthquake impacted NGOs that may translate into long-term gains for civil society in China. First, the earthquake created an unprecedented opportunity for NGOs to participate, network and show their worth on a public stage that received the attention and appreciation of the media and government officials. Second, it led to the emergence of NGO networks that drew in other actors such as the media, international NGOs, government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) and even government officials. Finally, it has stimulated ongoing public debates over, and pressures to change, the restrictive fundraising and policy environment for NGOs. These findings show that civil society development is not simply a function of government policy or international funding, but also of large-scale crises that expand the public space and need for NGOs.

On May 12, 2008, a huge earthquake measuring around 7.9 on the Richter scale struck western China. The epicenter of the earthquake was located near Wenchuan, in the mountainous western part of Sichuan province, but the force of the earthquake was felt as far away as Beijing. The earthquake caused massive damage in the areas near the epicenter and led to a death toll estimated at nearly 70,000.   The earthquake came as a shock to a country preparing to host the summer Olympic games in Beijing, but the social response to the earthquake was just as unexpected. The days and months that followed saw a tremendous surge of support from society as volunteers, civic associations, enterprises, and media from across the country donated their time, money and materials to the earthquake relief and reconstruction effort. Only two weeks after the earthquake, public donations reached 30.876 billion yuan, roughly the same as total public donations made for the entire year of 2007.[4]   The response by volunteers and civic associations participating in the earthquake relief was also unprecedented[5]. While some of these organizations were international NGOs and government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), many were homegrown, grassroots associations or NGOs[6]. To drive home the significance of this grassroots response to the earthquake, some media reports touted 2008 as the “Year of the Volunteer” or “Year of the NGO.”

The widespread participation of volunteers and associations in the earthquake relief and reconstruction shows that civil society in China has made significant progress in recent years. In the past, crisis management was a top-down process monopolized and mobilized by the state, with little input from ordinary citizens. But just how much of a change in state-society relations does this grassroots movement represent, and can the advances made by civil society after the earthquake be sustained over the medium or long term? Studies of civil society responses to earthquakes and other crises suggest that, in the short term, crises often expose weaknesses in state and present an opportunity for civic associations to play a more active role. In some cases, such as in Japan, earthquakes led to changes in the laws governing civic associations[7]. In other cases, earthquakes had a more limited impact on state-society relations. While earthquakes led to greater public visibility and respect for NGOs, and more networking opportunities, the upsurge in NGO activity and volunteerism was not always sustained.[8]

In the case of China, recent research shows that crises can play a role in expanding space for civil society, citing NGO participation in the SARS, and HIV/AIDS crises.[9] Preliminary research on the Sichuan earthquake also suggests that civil society organizations were able to take advantage of the opening provided by the earthquake and play a role in assisting the government in rescue and relief operations[10].

This article explores the relationship between crises and civil society in more depth focusing on the Sichuan earthquake’s impact on Chinese NGOs. It is based on interviews with government officials, academics and NGOs involved in the earthquake relief and reconstruction efforts, as well as reports and surveys published by academics, the government, journalists and the NGO community here in China. The interviews were conducted by the authors who made several trips to Sichuan from December of 2008 to the summer of 2009 to assess the impact of the earthquake on NGOs over the last year.

In the next section, we first discuss the relationship between NGOs and civil society in the Chinese context, then examine the role that NGOs played in the earthquake relief, and the government’s response to the participation of NGOs over the last year. We argue that the earthquake had several important impacts on NGOs that may translate into more lasting effects on China’s civil society. One is that it illuminated and energized what had previously been a quiescent and fragmented civil society by providing an unprecedented opportunity and a public stage for NGOs to mobilize, network and demonstrate their worth. The rapid emergence of NGO networks right after the earthquake is of particular importance not only because it demonstrated the capacity of NGOs to engage in collective action, but also because it brought NGOs into contact with government-backed organizations (e.g. mass organizations and GONGOs), international NGOs and individual officials who joined in these networks. Finally, NGOs participation in the earthquake, and the challenges they faced, has stimulated pressures for change in the fundraising and policy environment for NGOs.

Civil Society and NGOs in China

We use the sociological definition of civil society as the associational realm located between the state and other constitutive parts of society such as individuals, families and firms. This realm is populated by nongovernmental, nonprofit associations and networks that are largely self-organized and self-governing, and are formed voluntarily by members of society to pursue their interests and values.[11]

Applying this definition of civil society to China is challenging and some have argued that China does not have a civil society.[12] They point out that many associations in China, including many that call themselves NGOs, are established by the government or have significant government backing. Many of the more than 400,000 associations that are registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) and commonly recognized as NGOs are in fact GONGOs. MOCA regulations distinguish between three categories of NGOs: social organizations (shetuan); private non-enterprise units (minban feiqiye or minfei for short); and foundations (jijinhui).[13] GONGOs make up a majority of shetuan and foundations, and a substantial though smaller percentage of minfei.[14]

Civil society skeptics also point to the restrictive regulatory, political, and economic environment for NGOs in China. The regulatory system places many restrictions on NGO registration, organizing, and funding. NGOs that want to register with Civil Affairs need to meet certain requirements in terms of assets, staff, an office, a charter and so on.[15] NGOs are discouraged from registering if there is already a shetuan or minfei  registered in the same line of work.[16] Most importantly, NGOs must find a qualified government agency that is willing to be the NGO’s professional supervising unit (zhuguan bumen).   A willing professional supervising unit is difficult to find. In many cases, a supervising unit is already sponsoring another NGO in a similar line of work, or may be unwilling to be responsible for supervising an NGO. Given these difficulties, many NGOs have chosen to register with the Industrial and Commercial bureau as a for-profit business, or remain unregistered.

Even when an NGO is able to register with Civil Affairs or as a business, it faces other restrictions on organizing and fundraising. MOCA regulations prohibit NGOs from establishing branch organizations in other areas, making it difficult for NGOs to work in areas outside of their jurisdiction. The regulations also prohibit NGOs from engaging in public fundraising. Only a few GONGOs such as the China Red Cross Society (hong shizihui) and China Charity Federation (zhonghua cishan zonghui) are authorized to raise money publicly for disaster relief, and as a result they received the lion’s share of public donations after the earthquake[17]. As a result, NGOs have had to depend largely on private donations largely from overseas sources, and find it difficult to sustain their operations and develop professional staff due to funding difficulties. Finally, NGOs are viewed with suspicion by many authorities who do not understand what NGOs are or view them as anti-government organizations, and they are occasionally raided and even closed down by authorities for engaging in work that is perceived as sensitive.

These restrictions however should not obscure an important trend over the last decade: the rapid emergence of grassroots NGOs and networks in China that better fit our definition of civil society. These civil society groups come closer to independent associations because they are formed voluntarily with little or no government support, and are self-governing. These NGOs span a wide range of activities. While some are created to address the narrow interests of their members, many are concerned with the broader public interest and see themselves as contributing to an emerging civil society in China. They include environmental groups; groups providing services to specific groups such as migrant workers, women, and the disabled; homeowners associations; volunteer groups; cultural and recreational associations, and professional associations[18].

There are no reliable figures for the number of grassroots associations in China, but estimates suggest the numbers are sizeable. They include a portion of the more than 400,000 social organizations registered with Civil Affairs. In addition, estimates of the number of “business” or unregistered NGOs range from a few hundred thousand to over a million if rural associations are included[19].   Some Chinese scholars of NGOs estimate that the number of “business” and unregistered NGOs may be as high as 1 to 1.5 million.[20] These NGOs began to emerge in China in the early 1990s with organizations like Red Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center and the environmental group, Friends of Nature. Over the last decade, their numbers have risen rapidly, and they constitute the clearest marker of an emerging civil society in China.

In assessing the impact of the earthquake on civil society in China, we focus on this community of NGOs. But we also caution that it is neither possible nor desirable to make clear-cut distinctions between NGOs and GONGOs. For one, GONGOs are themselves becoming increasingly independent, and cooperating more with NGOs, a trend that intensified after the earthquake as we will see in the following sections. Moreover, research on civil society and social movements in other settings, in addition to our own research on NGO networks that emerged in the wake of the earthquake, show that they are composed of a heterogeneous array of organizations and individuals, not solely NGOs. To understand the possibilities for the emergence of civil society in China, we need to allow for a associational space not defined by sharp boundaries between state, market and civil society, and from which civil society evolves in a fluid and interdependent relationship with state and market actors[21].

State and Society Respond to the Sichuan Earthquake

The Sichuan earthquake triggered a large-scale response by the Chinese government and society. The government mobilized over 130,000 PLA soldiers and paramilitary police to the earthquake region and started a flow of supplies to the region on the day of the earthquake.   Government ministries and departments, mass organizations like the Communist Youth League (CYL), and GONGOs such as the Red Cross sent search and rescue teams, supplies and mobilized volunteers and funds through their national networks. A week after the earthquake, the Sichuan provincial CYL estimated it had about 200,000 volunteers in the earthquake areas, about half of whom were university students.[22] In addition, Chinese and international media were allowed relatively free rein in the earthquake region.

There was also a significant societal response as NGOs, companies, and volunteers rushed to the earthquake-stricken region to offer help, or raised funds and materials to be sent to aid those affected by the earthquake. The NGO response was immediate,[23] visible and unprecedented,[24] and included a diverse collection of organizations: private foundations started by celebrities such as Jet Li’s One Foundation; established NGOs such as Friends of Nature, as well as many lesser-known NGOs that had been working on environmental issues, HIV/AIDS, poverty relief and education, and other issues prior to the earthquake; and informal groups of volunteers formed in response to the earthquake[25]. One group surveying the NGO response one week after the earthquake counted more than 50 participating NGOs, and numerous volunteer groups and teams.[26] Other sources gave estimates ranging between 100-200 Chinese and international NGOs.[27] The Beijing Normal University survey team came across 263 NGOs and volunteer groups but claimed the actual number was even more.[28] More importantly, the earthquake led to an upsurge in NGO and volunteer networking and organizing, and the emergence of new groups and organizations, which are described in more detail below.

NGO Partnerships and Networking

An important dimension of the NGO response to the earthquake consisted of partnerships that NGOs engaged in with local governments, mass organizations, and GONGOs. Such partnerships were critical to the effectiveness and success of NGOs due to their lack of legitimacy and organizational capacity.   In order to enter the earthquake zones to help in the relief and reconstruction effort, these NGOs had to reach out to governmental and quasi-governmental partners that possessed both legal status and a national network.

In the initial stage of the earthquake relief, a number of local governments were overwhelmed and welcomed help from NGOs and volunteer groups, even allowing some NGOs to raise funds publicly on behalf of the Red Cross. Some township governments served as communication platforms for NGOs, volunteers, and the army.[29] In a township in Mianzhu county, several NGOs with the support of township officials established a Volunteer Coordination Office that turned into a gathering place for NGOs.[30]

The Beijing Normal University survey of 64 participating NGOs shows a substantial number relied on governmental ties to enter the earthquake area. As Table 1 shows, 41 NGOs (or 61%) relied on ties with either their own local government or the local government in the earthquake area. This number may actually underestimate the importance of government ties, because some of the other categories such as “personal ties” or “other” may have involved individuals associated with the local government or GONGOs such as the local Red Cross. Indeed, the report goes to state that one of the main characteristics of NGO participation was their reliance on personal ties with individual government officials, or with GONGOs or mass organizations such as the Women’s Federation and Communist Youth League, in order to enter the quake areas.

Type of organization Personal ties Local government from their own area Local government in quake area NGO network Other
All organizations 23.8% 14.1% 50% 48.4% 12.5%
Registered NGOs 20% 20% 62.9% 48.6% 5.7%
NGOs registered as businesses 33.3% 16.7% 66.7% 66.7% 33.3%
Unregistered NGOs 9.1% 0% 27.3% 45.5% 18.2%
Individual-based 50% 0 25% 25% 0%

TABLE 1: Channels used by NGOs to enter the earthquake area based on a survey of 64 NGOs. (Source: Beijing Normal University survey, emailed to the authors by Professor Tao Chuanjin on December 18, 2008)

Another important dimension of the NGO response to the earthquake was the rapid and extensive networking that occurred between NGOs, GONGOs, informal volunteer groups, and enterprises. As the Beijing Normal University survey shows, networking was a common means by which NGOs participated in the earthquake relief. Nearly 58.6 percent of the more than 70 NGOs surveyed were operating in Sichuan with three or more NGOs, and only about 28.6 percent operated alone[31]. Table 1 also shows that NGO networks provided an important platform for NGOs and volunteers seeking to participate in the earthquake relief. NGO networks were almost as important as local governments in helping NGOs enter the earthquake zones. Of the 64 NGOs surveyed, 48 percent relied on NGO networks to enter the earthquake zones, compared with 50 percent that relied on help from local governments in the earthquake zones and 14 percent that relied on help from their own local governments. Not surprisingly, the survey shows that “NGOs registered as businesses” and “unregistered NGOs”, two categories of grassroots NGOs, tended to rely more heavily on NGO networks than “registered NGOs”, a category which includes a mix of GONGOs and NGOs.

Many of these networks included a mix of NGOs (both domestic and international), GONGOs, informal volunteer groups and enterprises, a reminder of the heterogeneity of grassroots networks and thus the difficulty of trying to make clear-cut distinctions between grassroots associations and those with government backing. A few days after the earthquake, a joint declaration called on NGOs to unite in the earthquake relief and was supported by more than 160 organizations nationwide.[32] A number of Beijing’s leading NGOs and private foundations such as Friends of Nature, Green Earth Volunteers, and Nandu (or Narada) Foundation played leading roles, as did GONGOs like the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation and the China Youth Development Foundation. On May 14th, another network involving four Shanghai NGOs, a magazine and Jet Li’s One Foundation, set up a small group to gather supplies donated by enterprises, and transport them to Sichuan.[33] Other regionally-based NGO networks came from Guizhou, Shaanxi and Gansu.[34]

Of all these networks, the most important were the Sichuan NGO Earthquake Relief Coordinating Office (hereafter, the NGO Coordinating Office) (minjian jiuzai lianhe bangongshi); and the 512 Voluntary Relief Services Center (hereafter, the 512 Center) (512 minjian jiuzhu fuwu zhongxin). These networks were organized primarily by NGOs, took on more institutionalized forms, and thus show the potential for grassroots NGO networking in China.

The NGO Coordinating Office got its start on the day of the earthquake and lasted for about a month before closing down in early June. On the night of May 12th, several NGOs in Sichuan and Yunnan issued an appeal for NGOs to join in a joint relief effort and used the internet to contact NGOs, volunteers and other groups.[35] The main organizers were three NGOs from Sichuan, one from Yunnan, and another from Guizhou.[36]   The primary purpose of the NGO Coordinating Office was securing needed materials and supplies and distributing them to the regions affected by the earthquake through a virtual network of NGOs. During the month of May, the NGO Coordinating Office worked with more than 100 NGOs, volunteer groups, and enterprises around the country getting needed materials into the earthquake region. This network also served as a platform for information sharing. Beijing Zhendanji, a volunteer youth group, and the Yunnan-based NGO Development and Exchange Network (also known as set up a “NGO Relief Action” blog and a newsletter to get information out to network members about the need for supplies, and NGO relief activities.

The second NGO network, the 512 Center, also emerged in Chengdu and is still operating. The Center was based in the office of a registered NGO, Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA). According to organizers of the 512 Center, the Center was not established until May 15th, but a number of the NGOs involved were already coordinating on the day of the earthquake[37]. They found that in the chaos following the earthquake, volunteers and NGOs were looking for information about where to go and what they could do to help. The 512 Center was established primarily to provide information and training to these NGOs and volunteers. On May 14th, realizing the existence of an NGO network was bound to be sensitive, the Center’s organizers informed local officials who they knew personally about their intention of establishing the Center and faxed them the list of the organizations and groups involved. Then on May 15th, a group of 21 NGOs met in CURA’s office and agreed to establish the 512 Center. The main organizers were Chinese NGOs, though they were joined by a few international NGOs with offices in Sichuan.

While there was some overlap between the 512 Center’s network and the NGO Coordinating Office’s network, their missions were different as explained by one of the organizers of the NGO Coordinating Office. “Our mission was very single-minded: getting materials and sending them out to the affected areas. The 512 Center’s mission is to provide information for NGOs and volunteers, so really two different networks with two different missions”.[38]

Since May 15, members of the 512 Center have held regular meetings. By June, soon after the NGO Coordinating Office closed down, the 512 Center’s members gathered to discuss whether to keep the Center going. Most of the members voted to continue the Center, and signed onto a memorandum of understanding where they agreed that the Center would continue its work as a project (xiangmu)[39]. The Center also went through a restructuring whereby decision making power was given to a core group of NGOs. The remaining members retained privileges such as attending meetings, participating in the Center’s activities, and getting minutes of the meetings and other information from the 512 Center. By June of 2009, the number of NGOs listed as members of the Center’s network had risen to over 40, but it was also sharing information on a regular basis with more than 80 other NGOs and foundations from around the country.

The internet served as a powerful tool used by NGOs to organize, and helps to explain how these networks came together in such a short period of time. As Guobing Yang, who has written about internet activism in China, points out,

Much of the civic organizing [after the earthquake] was done through web sites, mailing lists, blogs and online communities. For example,, a major information hub for Chinese NGOs, set up a special bulletin board for the NGO relief office in Chengdu to post announcements. The internet proved crucial for timely, extensive, and in-depth coverage. Large websites, both commercial and government-owned, set up special earthquake sections.[40]

The internet was used by a number of environmental and education NGOs in Beijing to launch a “Green Ribbon” campaign the day after the earthquake to raise money and conduct blood drives. That same day, 57 NGOs issued a joint statement calling for NGOs to collaborate in providing disaster relief.[41], and through regular newsletters emailed to its supporters.    The internet figures prominently in the two NGO networks described above, and made it possible for them to extend their reach nationwide.   In the case of the NGO Coordinating Office, most of the networking, and organizing and distribution of supplies, was carried out online. The 512 Center also does most of its coordination and information sharing through its website,

The composition of these networks, and the speed with which they formed, are important to our argument that the earthquake energized what was already a nascent, and relatively independent civil society. First, these networks were organized and made up largely of NGOs and volunteer groups, showing that China’s grassroots associations are capable of forming horizontal networks that are relatively independent of the Chinese state[42]. They thus provide evidence that grassroots associations in China have not been captured by vertical, corporatist ties as some have argued.[43] Secondly, NGOs and other groups involved in these networks came from diverse sectors and issue areas, indicating they were bound by “weak ties” which are seen as more conducive to the development of a civil society[44]. “Weak ties” characterize relationships between different small groups, in contrast to “strong ties” which characterize family and kinship groups. “Weak ties” are thus seen as contributing to the development of broader, less self-interested, and more socially engaged attitudes that cut across social cleavages.[45]

Finally, if as Robert Putnam argues, spontaneous and voluntary cooperation in a community is facilitated by social capital, defined as features of social organization such as trust, norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement, then the rapid emergence of these networks suggest that China’s NGO community possessed a substantial stock of social capital prior to the earthquake.[46] This observation runs counter to some studies that characterize the NGO community as atomized and fragmented[47], and shows that the effect of the earthquake on NGOs has been less a revolutionary one, than an evolutionary one. Guobin Yang makes a similar observation in noting, “the unprecedented scope of citizen participation [following the earthquake] was not a surprising turn of events, but rather the logical outcome of more than 10 years of small-scale but persistent grassroots citizen activism since the mid-1990s.”[48]

The Government’s Response to NGO Participation: Institutionalizing Cooperation and Changing the Policy Environment for NGOs

Whether the resurgence of civil society in the wake of the earthquake can be sustained depends critically on the government’s response to the participation of NGOs, volunteers and their networks. In the year following the earthquake, the government’s attitude and policy toward NGOs has been mixed, but on the whole, there are encouraging signs that the earthquake has prompted Chinese authorities at both the local and national level to reconsider their views of and policy toward NGOs.

At the local level, the earthquake forced local authorities to work together with NGOs, often for the first time. Their responses have varied, but generally they have been willing to institutionalize arrangements with NGOs that they feel will help in the post-earthquake reconstruction[49]. They were most open to NGO participation during the first week when the government’s management capacity at the local level was severely weakened by the earthquake, and NGOs and volunteers, including those from overseas, poured in with few restrictions.[50] In the months following, local authorities in the earthquake area recovered their capacity and strengthened their management over NGOs and volunteers as concerns emerged about improper fundraising activities, and volunteers and organizations entering with adequate training or a clear sense of how they could help, or engaging in sensitive activities.[51] In the city of Dujiangyan, volunteers were seen to be helping organize angry parents who had planned to present a petition to local authorities concerning the death of their children who had been killed by the collapse of poorly-constructed school buildings.[52]

In response to these problems, local authorities have worked out a modus operandi allowing NGOs and volunteers that are qualified to remain in the area. If NGOs or volunteers want to work in the earthquake areas, they now need a vehicle permit issued by government, and introduction letters from higher-level government authorities, the Red Cross, or the Communist Youth League.[53]   A number of NGOs we visited in June of 2009, more than a year after the earthquake, were still carrying out projects in the earthquake areas, but they stressed that NGOs that wanted to work in the area had to have a clear plan, work closely with local authorities, and demonstrate their effectiveness. They also stressed the importance of being proactive in reporting their activities to local governments as a way of maintaining good relations. NGOs that tried to carry out their activities without informing local governments or getting their approval were more likely to be told to leave the area[54]

At the national level, the earthquake prompted cooperation between GONGOs and NGOs in the area of funding, and a reconsideration of policies that may alleviate some of the structural impediments facing NGOs in China. In an important change from past practices, GONGOs such as the China Red Cross Foundation and the China Poverty Alleviation Foundation have begun to disburse funds to support NGO projects. Because NGOs cannot fundraise publicly, almost all of the record-shattering 65.252 billion yuan in public donations raised for the earthquake in 2008 went to government departments and GONGOs.   Some GONGOs found they had more than they could effectively spend and decided to invite NGOs to bid for post-earthquake reconstruction projects.[55] In June 2008, the China Red Cross Foundation gave 20 million RMB through a public tendering process to more than 10 NGOs for post-earthquake reconstruction projects. In August 2009, a coalition of seven foundations, some private and some GONGOs, contributed over 20 million RMB through a public bidding process for reconstruction projects. Most of this went to NGOs.[56]

The earthquake also led to debates about removing some of the obstacles to fundraising and registration that currently constrain NGOs. One of these is the restrictions on public fundraising that allowed government agencies and GONGOs to gain a near monopoly on funds raised from the public for the earthquake relief. The government’s monopoly led to expressions of dissatisfaction towards government and charity institutions, and triggered debates about who could raise funds publicly, how fundraising could be made more transparent, and how publicly raised funds could be spent.[57]   These debates have prompted Chinese policymakers to consider revising the regulations concerning disaster relief and NGO management to enlarge the role of NGOs.[58] The most direct effect of this crisis may be the promulgation of the “Regulations on Social Fund-Raising Management.” The State Council and related government agencies have already issued a series of provisional documents to regulate public fund-raising, and in 2009, the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) began drafting new regulations governing public fundraising.

In addition, after the earthquake, MOCA finished drafting the “Charity Law” which is now being examined by the State Council, and has renewed efforts to revise the regulations governing registration and management of shetuan, minfei and foundations. According to official sources, there are indications that the revisions will lower the threshold for NGO registration, especially for private foundations, minfei and industrial associations.[59]


The Sichuan earthquake was a watershed event for China’s associational sphere. It triggered an unprecedented display of public spiritedness, charitable giving, volunteering and networking in Chinese society. The extensive horizontal networking among a diverse community of NGOs and other volunteer groups, in particular, produced the strongest evidence we have to date of a nascent civil society that has not been captured by a corporatist state. By civil society, we refer back to our definition of an associational sphere that is organized voluntarily by members of society to pursue their values and interests, and self-governing. According to this definition, civil society associations do not necessarily have to assume an oppositional role vis-à-vis the state. Indeed, as the above discussion showed, cooperation and partnerships with the state were an important part of the NGO response. The rapid emergence of NGO networks is also an indication of the social capital that has accumulated over the past decade or so in China’s associational community. This reserve of social capital is impressive given long-standing problems in the NGO community, such as weak organizational capacity, lack of legitimacy, and fragmentation, in addition to the constraints imposed by an authoritarian state that remains suspicious of NGOs. As scholars of civil society point out, this social capital should not be seen as leading to democratization. But the display of social capital in the societal response to the earthquake shows that NGOs are able to come together to address broader issues that transcend their own parochial interests[60].

The earthquake also shows that a distinct associational sphere is, by itself, insufficient for a fully functioning civil society which also requires a supportive political and social environment. This environment includes a state that can provide order and create the political and regulatory framework within which civil society organizations can pursue their goals in a nonviolent manner, and a society where associations have access to the media and to funding from economic elites, and recognition and support from other political and social groups.[61] China’s long history of authoritarian rule has of course created a political and social environment that constrains, and sometimes represses, rather than supports civil society.   Without substantial changes in this environment, NGO networks such as the 512 Center will find it difficult to sustain its operations. In this regard, one of the most important consequences of the Sichuan earthquake has been to make many in the Chinese state, media and society aware, for the first time, of the value of NGOs and volunteers, and the structural constraints that limit what they can do in event of a disaster. The performance of NGOs and volunteers in the earthquake relief demonstrated that they could play a constructive role in building a “harmonious society,” and has stimulated discussion and pressure within policymaking circles for easing the regulatory bottlenecks constraining NGOs and charitable foundations.


[1] This article first appeared in the no. 65 (January 2011) issue of The China Journal.
[2] Formerly Associate Professor of Political Science at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, NY. Currently Editor of China Development Brief (English), and Visiting Professor, IES Beijing Center, Beijing Foreign Studies University.
[3] Professor and Director of the Center for Innovation and Social Responsibility in the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University.
[4] Xijin Jia, “Chinese Civil Society After the May 12 Earthquake”, English transl. on Policy Forum Online 08-056A: 22 July 2008,
[5] Guobin Yang, “A Civil Society Emerges From the Earthquake Rubble,” YaleGlobal Online,, 5 June 2008; Amy Gadsden, “Earthquake Rocks Civil Society,” Far Eastern Economic Review, June 2008.
[6] Throughout this article, we use NGOs as a shorthand for these associations, also referred to as civil society organizations (CSOs), non-profit organizations (NPOs), or community-based organizations (CBOs).
[7] Robert Pekkanen, “Japan’s New Politics: The Case of the NPO Law,” Journal of Japanese Studies 26:1(Winter, 2000), pp. 111-148.
[8] Alpaslan Orzedem and Tim Jacoby, Disaster Management and Civil Society: Earthquake Relief in Japan, (Turkey and India: I. B. Tauris and Co., Ltd., 2005); Paul Kubicek, “The Earthquake, Civil Society, and Political Change in Turkey: Assessment and Comparison with Eastern Europe”, Political Studies, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2002), pp. 761-778
[9] Jonathan Schwartz and Shawn Shieh (eds), State and Society Responses to Social Welfare Needs in China: Serving the People, (London and New York: Routledge, 2009).

[10] Jessica Teets, “Post-Earthquake Relief and Reconstruction Efforts: The Emergence of Civil Society in China?”, The China Quarterly, Vol. 198 (June, 2009), pp.330-347.

[11] Gordon White, Jude Howell, and Xiaoyuan Shang, In Search of Civil Society: Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); Andrew Watson, “Civil Society in a Transitional State: The Rise of Associations in China,” in Jonathan Unger (ed.), Associations and the Chinese State: Contested Spaces (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2008); Muthiah Alagappa (ed.), Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), Ch.1.
[12] On the debate over civil society in China, see White, Howell and Shang, In Search of Civil Society, Ch.1; Timothy Brooks and B. Michael Frolic, Civil Society in China (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1997); Shawn Shieh and Jonathan Schwartz, “State and society responses to social welfare needs in China: an introduction to the debate” in Schwartz and Shieh (eds.), State and Society Responses; Yiyi Lu, Non-Governmental Organisations in China (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), ch.2.
[13] The relevant regulations are “Regulations for registration and management of social organizations”, “Provisional regulations for registration and management of private non-enterprise units”, and “Regulations on management of foundations”. The first two regulations were issued in 1998, while the foundation regulations came out in 2004. English-language versions of these regulations were accessed from China Development Brief,
[14] For examples of GONGOs see the directory of NGOs in Nick Young, 250 Chinese NGOs: Civil Society in the Making, (Beijing: China Development Brief, 2001).
[15] See the regulations in fn 12.
[16] See Article 13 in the Regulations for registration and management of social organizations, and Article 11 in the Provisional regulations for registration and management of private non-enterprise units.
[17] “Donation for 5.12 Earthquake Disaster Relief Sets Record”, China Philanthropy Times (special issue of All-China Charity Conference), 12 December 2008 (accessed from China Charity Information Center’s website,
[18] See Watson, “Civil society in a transitional state” for a typology.
[19] See Wang Ming, “The Development and Present Situation of NGOs in China”, Social Sciences in China, Vol.28, No.2 (Summer, 2007), pp.99-100, and Watson, “Civil Society in a Transitional State,” pp.36-38.
[20] Deng Guosheng, “The Hidden Rules Governing China’s Unregistered NGOs,” The China Review, Vol.10, No.1 (Spring, 2010), p.188.
[21] Watson, “Civil society in a transitional state,” p.15.
[22] Zhai Yan, “‘512’ Sichuan dizhen NGO zhenzai diaocha baogao” (Investigative report on NGO disaster relief in the “512” Sichuan earthquake), Zhiyuande Liliang (The Power of Volunteering), No. 4 (2008), pp.5-9.
[23] A Beijing Normal University survey shows that most NGOs arrived in the first few days. See Wang Ming, et. al. (eds.), Wenchuan dizhen gongmin xingdong baogao (Report on civil society action in the Wenchuan earthquake) (Social Science Academic Press, 2008), pp.6-7.
[24] NGOs and volunteers had participated in other natural disasters and crises such as the 1998 Yangtze river flooding, SARS, and the snowstorms in central China in early 2008, but on a much smaller scale. See “Apres le deluge,” China Development Brief (Online:, accessed June 10, 2009);, and chapters by Kaufmann, Laliberte and Schwartz in Schwartz and Shieh, State and Society Responses.
[25] Maureen Fan, “Citizens’ Groups Step Up In China,” Washington Post, 29 May 2008, p.A1; Wang Hui, “NGO zhenzai xingdong sumiao” (Quickly tracing NGO actions in the earthquake relief), Zhongguo Fazhan Jianbao, no. 38 (Summer, 2008).
[26] Zhai Yan, “512 Sichuan dizhen baogao”.
[28] Wang Ming, et al., Wenchuan dizhen baogao, p.6.
[29] Interview with an international NGO director, Beijing, 10 May 2009.
[30] Wang Hui, “NGO de jiti liangxiang – dizhenzhongde NGO lianhe xingdong” (The collective light of NGOs: coordinated action among NGOs in the earthquake”), Zhongguo Fazhan Jianbao, no.39 (Fall, 2008).
[31] Wang Ming, et. al., Wenchuan dizhen baogao, p.9.
[32] A name list of the NGOs, GONGOs and companies that signed onto the declaration can be found in Wang Ming, et. al, Wenchuan dizhen baoggao, Appendix 7.
[33] These examples were drawn from Wang Hui, “NGO de jiti liangxiang”; Zhai Yan, “512 Sichuan dizhen baogao”; Wang Ming, Wenchuan dizhen baogao; Jia Xijin, “Chinese Civil Society.”
[34] Wang Ming, Wenchuan dizhen baogao, pp.9-11. A name list of the NGOs can be found in the appendices of this report.
[35] Jia Xijin, “Chinese Civil Society”; Wang Hui, “NGO de jiti liangxiang”; Interviews with 4 NGOs involved in the network, Chengdu, 8-9 January and 25 June 2009.
[36] Interview with one of the NGO organizers, Chengdu, 8 January and 22 June 2009.
[37] Interview with one of the NGO organizers, Chengdu, 8 January 2009.
[38] Interview with 512 Center coordinators, Chengdu, 9 January 2009.
[39] The Center’s members felt it would be too sensitive to call itself an organization (zuzhi) because it was not registered and would be considered essentially an illegal organization. Interview with 512 Center coordinators, Chengdu, 9 January 9 and 22 June 2009.
[41] Wang Hui, “NGO zhenzai xingdong sumiao”.
[42] Because NGOs played a leading and majority role in organizing many of these networks, we believe they qualify as horizontal networks, bringing together actors of similar status and power (Putnam, Making Democracy Work, p. 173).
[43] B. Michael Frolic, “State-led Civil Society,” in Brook and Frolic (eds.), Civil Society in China; Kenneth Foster, “Embedded in State Agencies: Business Associations in Yantai,” The China Journal, No. 47 (January, 2002), pp.41-65.
[44] Previous NGO networks in China, such as the Anti-Domestic Violence Network and the China Rivers Network, have been small and limited to one sector.
[45] Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p.175; James L. Gibson, “Social Networks, Civil Society and the Prospects for Consolidating Russia’s Democratic Transition,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 45, No. 1 (January, 2001), pp. 53-54
[46] Putnam, Making Democracy Work, p.167.
[47] Tim Hildebrandt and Jennifer Turner, “Green Activism?: Reassessing the Role of Environmental NGOs in China,” in Schwartz and Shieh, State and Society Responses, pp.100-101.
[48] Guobin Yang, “A Civil Society Emerges.”
[49] For an interesting case, see Tong Jianfeng, “Two Years After the Wenchuan Earthquake: The Bittersweet Honeymoon of NGOs and Government,” Nanfengchuang, 10 May 2010 (English translation accessed on China Elections and Governance,, 19 May 2010).
[50] “CPC official praises NGOs’ role in relief work,” China Daily, 22 May 2008, p.2.   Howard French and Edward Wong, “In departure, China invites outside help,” New York Times, 16 May 2008.
[51] “Notice on Enhancing Management and Use of Wenchuan Earthquake Disaster Relief Funds and Materials”, Office of the State Council,
[52] Zhang Jianfeng, “Zhenqu NGO”.
[53] Interview with a NGO director, Chengdu, 9 April 2009. “Zhengfu yu NGO zuzhi jiankude mohe” (The difficult readjutment between the government and NGOs),
[54] Zhang Jianfeng, “Zhenqu NGO”; interviews with three NGOs, Chengdu, 8 January and 22 and 25 June 2009.
[55] Part of the impetus for this initiative came from private foundations such as Narada (Nandu) Foundation led by Xu Yongguang, former director of the China Youth Development Foundation (a GONGO), who has been a leading supporter of NGOs (Interview with an NGO leader receiving funding from the Red Cross, Chengdu, 22 June 2009).
[56] Interview with a GONGO official in charge of the public tendering, Beijing, August 2009.
[57] Zheng Yuanchang, “Lessons Modern Chinese Charity Workers Can Take From Society’s Response to the Wenchuan Earthquake,” China Nonprofit Review, Vol.3 (2008), pp.130-141.
[58] Interview with the Director of the Social Welfare and Charity Promotion Division of MOCA, 10 May 2009.
[59] In a recent interview on the Charity Law, the head of MOCA’s Promotion of Social Welfare and Charity Division, Wang Zhenyao, gave special attention to the role played by grassroots associations. “Minzheng bu sizhang Wang Zhenyao touru ‘cishan fa’ yijing songdao Guowuyuan”(MOCA Division chief, Wang Zhenyao reveals that the Charity Law has been sent on to the State Council), Gongyi shibao, 2 November 2009, (Accessed 6 November 2009).
[60] See Omar Encarnacion, “Civil Society Reconsidered,” Comparative Politics (April, 2006), pp.364-367.

[61] See the discussion in Alagappa, Civil Society and Political Change in Asia, pp.32-40.

In Brief

Drawing on survey data and interviews with NGOs involved with the Sichuan earthquake response and reconstruction, this article argues that the earthquake provided an important catalyst for a previously quiescent NGO community.
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