Disaster Relief

Compassion, logistics, and nerves begin to fray in Chengdu

Inside a camp for earthquake victims in Sichuan

This article is by Pete Sweeney, a Fulbright Scholar researching business policy in Chengdu, China.

The image is by Beijing-based photographer Janek Zdzarski who is currently traveling around the earthquake zone

Jiao Na had come a long way to help the people of Sichuan. A Chinese teacher living in Kunming, she had seen the pictures and heard the cries for help. Not content to mail supplies, she contacted a local health bureau in Chengdu and arranged to purchase the supplies they said they needed to prevent a looming medical disaster: medical supplies, mosquito repellent, dry biscuits. She solicited donations from her friends in Kunming, some $700 worth, and booked plane tickets along with several companions.

However, when she got to Chengdu, she was astonished to find that nobody seemed to want the aid they’d requested. She made two stops, one at the Chinese Red Cross, and had her goods turned away for being too small in scale. When she met us at the Sichuan Provincial Hygiene Information Research Center, another collecting point for aid, she was tired of rejections. And yet the center appeared unexcited about her donations. Her receipts were not in order. They didn’t want to deal with foodstuffs or mosquito repellent. They suggested she go deliver it to the distressed regions herself, but the roads are closed to individual volunteers and she has no car anyway. “I don’t understand,” said Jiao Na. “I hear all these people in Sichuan appealing for help. I come up here and nobody wants it. If you don’t want this stuff, why do you ask for it? I just think it’s really weird.” And Jiao Na burst into tears.

Jiao Na had no way to know how poor her timing was. She had arrived in Chengdu just in time for its second wave of earthquake shock, but this time the shock was man-made. After a week of watching images of horror from outlying areas, the citizenry of Chengdu was no longer complacent about aftershocks. On Monday, the city held a “moment of silence” to commemorate the earthquake victims. This moment of silence was not, in fact, silent, but was marked by every air-raid alarm and car horn in the city detonating simultaneously. The effect was cardiac. Monday night the local government followed up by broadcasting a prediction that an “aftershock” between six and seven points in magnitude (as severe as the initial shock) would likely strike the city in the next 24 hours. This time the city panicked. Half of the city’s population, it seemed, leapt into their cars and fled. The main roads leading out of the city were all clogged. The tent cities, previously populated mostly by stubborn holdouts who distrusted the government’s assurances were now rejoined by those who did not have the ability or the inclination to flee. I slept on a sidewalk in front of a bar.

Metaphorically speaking, the first week of the earthquake disaster was like the honeymoon of a longer relationship. First the euphoria of survival and the closeness one feels with those you survived with. Then, as the news began to broadcast images of horror from the surrounding areas, a surge of sympathy and compassion as the population mobilized to help. Granted the tone was marred by a few panics, over the water supply for one. But over all optimism and community feeling prevailed.

But by the time Jiao Na arrived, the aid structure was clogged, charlatans and con men had begun to take advantage of the situation, creating fraudulent donation websites and selling stolen donated supplies like tent materials on the side of the road. According to an employee of a local chamber of commerce, the local business community is also confused and exhausted by the unending appeals for aid from a multitude of just-sprung-to-life aid organizations. China has little experience with NGOs; civil society initiatives are the province of the government. Now there are student groups, foreign aid organizations, individuals, and various government agencies all acting at the same time, but not in concert.

At this point the risk is that burnout will set in. Having dealt with the immediate effects of the crisis, distributed food, medicine, water, temporary shelter, will the Chinese neglect to address the fundamental problems that resulted in so many school buildings collapsing while the government offices stayed upright? Excepting the exploding size of the government bureaucracy (in the Qing dynasty the ratio of officials to peasants was 1:1000, today it is closer to 1:40), China’s rural infrastructure remains poorly developed. Frequently the development of public goods like education and health systems have taken a second seat to factories and office parks . . . or to the blatant corruption documented by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao in their (now banned) survey of China’s peasantry “Will the Boat Sink the Water?”

Chinese citizens like Jiao Na are clearly ready to pitch in, as is the international community, but the effort must be sustained over a greater length of time, targeting longer-term structural problems. The earthquake, as tragic was it was, is an opportunity to build again, and build better. While the earthquake was an unmitigated disaster, it would be a worse disaster to waste the newly mobilized energy of Chinese volunteers.

There are currently 12 Comments for Compassion, logistics, and nerves begin to fray in Chengdu.

Comments on Compassion, logistics, and nerves begin to fray in Chengdu

The fire of the nationalistic students will quickly be drowned in the depth, size and scale of the disaster and the endemic corruption. They already grow exhausted. Water overcomes Fire.

If I were Jia Na, I would have felt the same way. Is this really common in Chengdu? Chinese people in the U.S. are really trying to make donations and even send tents to Sichuan. The tragedy is bringing the Chinese people over the world together. Hope things will be better organized, and the united power won't fade~

There are certain assumptions that
are reasonable to make regarding Jia
Na's frustration at being turned away,
after her selfless efforts to help.

The sheer scale of the destruction and
suffering reduces the effect of her effort to a small note in a library of sorrows.

There were millions of 'small notes',
and hers is no less than the others.

The people who turned her away, may have been busy loading blood into refrigerated trucks, or pleading for hours to have a crane moved to save a trapped child.

These people may have expressed and
endured the bitter anger of survivors
as disbelieving as Jia. There is anger, frustration, incompetence, and
hypocracy to be endured, as you feel
exhaustion numb your muscles and your mind. A disaster IS a disaster because there is a shortage, of things and skills and patience and all

Jia, your story has been told to the world now, and that is Not a 'note'
-it is placed beside a million others
telling of the openess, selflessness,
charity and courage of the Chinese people. This is as much, or more than
the effect of $700 in supplies. The
media here have described a generosity
sympathy and sorrow to China from the 'rest of the world': Why?

Because the 'rest of the world' has seen the highest ideals of their cultures expressed in the million "notes-stories" from China, yours, no less than the others. And your ideals and action and story has been read here and everywhere by now. My personal thanks (and from people here) to you for making the day, the year, the world, a better place :-)
Cheers, Ken S.

I am disbelieving that you have refused my carefully considered comments IN SPITE OF THE PERFECT FIT WITH YOUR STATED POLICY Y ou are unworthy of comment from any thoughtful literate letter writer

Thank You for posting my comments

--And my criticism (which I retract)

-takes guts to do that.

Cheers, Ken S. vancouver CA

I agree with the point that foreign rescue workers who don't speak the language could be more of a hindrance than a help. I know there is money behind every offer of help, money to hire translators and support staff. As a foreign team goes in to a new area, the host government can provide the support assistance needed (paid for by the foreign service).

The fear as I understand it after reading the various Chinese blogs permitted by the government during and after the earthquake was that foreign workers (and their government backers) would try to steal state secrets, spy or do damage to the state itself. Anyone who had followed the work of foreign assistance organizations like "Doctors Without Borders", knows that is an absurd and ridiculous worry. These foreign organizations' only goal is to help people. To help people, not to spy on the government. Not to steal state secrets. Not to take over the country!

What most people in China may not realize is the American people (and many other peoples from other nations) feel a strong connection to the Chinese people (not the Chinese Government). America is a country of immigrants, and during the 1800's, the Chinese immigrants that came to America in droves, and brought their families, their culture, their language, their food became an important part of the American culture. These people, along with Italian immigrants, Polish immigrants, Irish immigrants, built our cities, our railroads, our power plants and our irrigation systems. They are as integral a part of America as I am (a grandson of an Irish immigrant), or my neighbor (a son of a Lebanese immigrant). The Chinese people are thought of with the same awe and respect that we give to any of our founding fathers and grandfathers.

So when something horrible like the earthquake happens in the Chinese home-land, we feel sadness and pain for these people as we do for our own families. We only want to help. But we want to help the PEOPLE of China. To help people, not to spy on the government. Not to steal state secrets. Not to take over the country!

I hope one day the people of China will see that Americans are their friends.

Dear Adam,

Americans are our FRIENDS, please don't be discouraged by those 'spy' nonsense. Thank you for pointing out the contribution that Chinese immigrants made to the formation of America, when I traveled to Queensland in Australia, I heard the same stories that how early Chinese immigrants contributed to the development of agriculture and other industries.

See those people who accused foreign aid workers of stealing state secrets are very narrow-minded. They have little knowledge of this CHANGING world, I suppose they are still living in the 70s, or some people just wanna stir things up, they don't THINK or INVESTIGATE before they act.

I hope I express myself well, I am not good at discussing politics, but I just want to represent ordinary Chinese, the majority, we are not hostile to Americans, and we are very grateful towards all the aids from the world community.


Sure majority of Chinese are not hostile to Americans, but to the U.S. government.

*trolling. . .
why then is it that many chinese people won't accept the argument that americans are hostile to the chinese government, but not chinese people
/end troll

also: [this is good] for the rant from Ken S.


Most Chinese ppl are not hostile to U.S. government neither, but to self rightious, ignorant, senseless western media.

"Most Chinese ppl are not hostile to U.S. government neither, but to self rightious, ignorant, senseless western media."

Without defending the western media, which is often self-righteous, ignorant, and senseless, it seems to me that most Chinese people base their opinion of western media on what Chinese media says about western media. This implies that Chinese people believe their government-controlled media opinion of "western media" is reliable. Certainly it is in the interests of local governments to encourage Chinese people to distrust whatever criticism foreign media offers, but I would point out that the SARS epidemic was first reported in the Western media because the Chinese media was prevented from reporting it. Without advocating that Chinese citizens blindly trust the western media (I don't, and I don't know many westerners who do), certainly there are cases where the western media can play a helpful role, no?

I am appreciative of her personal effort, it is when people stop indiviudally making actions like this, the governments will soon also stop doing things when people are hurt. I am remembered a time I worked in SanFrancisco, and a story in times was of a woman who travelled from China, supported by California church and went to new york and begged to the street for months for her sick child. My work was not regular (but in engineering so well paid) and I had debts so cash was impractical for me, but I had a lot of great stuff I was hauling around.
I packed up a full moving box, stuffed animals, books, a really good interveiw suit that no longer fits, nice hats, what ever I felt could help her or her village. Drove it down and dropped off at night at the stoop of that palo alto church which couldnt seam to resource to help her but did support her to beg in new york. The note was, it was for her.
I think they at least got the message. It takes concern., not just listening. I think it went to a church sale for her benefit or was sent with a crate to her hometown. When you dont know who to contact, the churches always will make sure aid goes to the intended, its thier mission to help life.

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