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China quake: From rubble, civil society builds

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Dr. Han points to "the unprecedented scale of donations, the fact that NGOs have become much more professional, and the way they are working with the government and with each other" as signs of how individuals and civic groups, independent of the ruling Communist Party, are expanding their influence.

Warnings for troublemakers

They would be well advised to do so cautiously, however. "You have to be strategic in highlighting sensitive issues without irritating government officials," explains Wen Bo, a rising young environmental activist. "If you are seen as a troublemaker ... they will shut your mouth and shut you down," he warns. "NGOs working to improve Chinese society should not work as if they are in the United States."

Elizabeth Hausler, founder of the US-based engineering NGO Build Change, knows all about that. Since she first arrived in Sichuan last year to build earthquake-resistant houses for survivors, she says, "We have been hearing over and over again from the government that we should not cause problems, not get homeowners riled up" against the authorities.

The Chinese government has long been suspicious of NGOs, especially foreign ones, because of the support some lent to the overthrow of governments in former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

The earthquake's aftermath, however, has shown local authorities how useful NGOs can be. "When the [People's Liberation Army] and volunteers left, the government recognized the necessity of NGOs, which can respond to needs rapidly, raise funds, and come up with plans," says Han.

More than 100 groups, Chinese and foreign, are now building houses, counseling survivors, restoring sanitation systems, and undertaking a thousand other tasks that need doing.

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