One trip through the loading docks proved their claims correct as the place was packed with roughly 200 volunteers, predominantly Sichuan University students, all tripping over themselves to get a spot in a 10 person daisy chain. As massive supply truck after massive supply truck funneled into the loading docks, donations by companies and individuals of medicine, clothes, food, water, tents and tarps were being unloaded as quickly as they came in.
The students had a look of pride and purpose in their efforts and not a complaint could be heard as groups worked all day and night to help those up the hill. In fact, the only criticism I could offer would be a lack of perfect efficiency as everyone was wanting so bad to offer help that a tight 5 person daisy chain sometimes turned into a clumsy 15 person chain.
While this level of volunteering might be taken for granted in other countries, this is an amazing step and a watershed moment in China’s modernization. Recent history has created a class of people who would turn away from a bloody traffic accident as opposed to jumping to aid the injured for fear of getting too involved.
Many people have been taught that family, career and financial gain are not just the most important things in life, but that these are in fact the only things that matter. If someone is not in your family or a close friend, you should stay out of their affairs in times of need.
If there is any good to take out of this earthquake, it is that these ideas are changing quickly and it can be seen in the current volunteer efforts. These students from Sichuan University represent a new class that is socially aware, politically active, predominantly well educated and eager to get involved.
Recent history has seen a Chinese society that wouldn’t give away an RMB to someone less fortunate for fear that they wouldn’t know when they could earn it back. The students of today have grown up comparably financially comfortable and as such can more easily part with money and donate time.
Media within China has historically downplayed the scope and scale of large natural disasters, opting instead to let the government handle the problem on its own. In the case of this earthquake, around the clock coverage of the suffering and destruction by CCTV has allowed this new generation to see what is happening with up to the minute coverage.
Additionally, through the media the government has openly appealed for aid and encouraged people to donate to The Red Cross Association of China. While the idea of donating to a smaller, less bureaucratic NGO is still a few years away, Chinese people trust a large organization like The Red Cross Association of China because of its size and history. Donations have poured in from all corners of the country, and along with many donations to our particular loading dock came a representative from the respective company filming the arrival of their goods.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the idea of volunteering, holding fund raisers, starting NGOs and supporting the relief effort have all become “cool” amongst China’s youth.
Countless numbers of benefit concerts have taken place from Shanghai to Beijing, and Tianjin to Guangzhou. Girls are walking down the streets of Chengdu proudly sporting t-shirts that were purchased with money that will support the relief effort. Sichuan University students are meeting their friends at the loading docks, working for a few hours and then going out to dinner together. Walking into a restaurant with a mud stained t-shirt and a sunburned face in Chengdu no longer labels you a poor farmer, but instead a humanitarian who is working for the cause.
A “Red Cross Volunteer” sticker is being proudly sported as a badge of honor by all those who have spent time at the loading docks, and respect from the locals is given accordingly.
Realistically speaking, it is hard to expect a country with little monetary resources and a large underclass to have a strong reputation amongst its citizens of philanthropic work. Conversely, it can be seen as a sign of social advancement when the citizens of a particular country make that leap. While China’s advancement economically has happened over the course of 30 years, China’s advance philanthropically has happened over the course of one week.
It started because of the earthquake, it grew because of the government’s allowance, and it will stay because it is cool.