BEIJING, China — Amid China’s greatest natural disaster in a generation — the massive earthquake that struck Sichuan province last May 12 — signs of hope emerged that the tragedy might change society.
But a year after the quake left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing, that initial promise of a more open and volunteer-minded China has faded. Back then, many predicted that Chinese volunteerism would blossom, and a freer press would result. Those predictions have yet to take root.
China’s openness in days after the quake — toward journalists both foreign and domestic, and toward international aid workers and homegrown volunteers — earned it mountains of goodwill from the world. That at a time when China desperately wanted global respect. Two months earlier, after quashing violent uprisings in Tibet, the Chinese government was under intense international criticism. Its global Olympic torch relay became a lightening rod for protest around the world.
When I arrived in Sichuan three days after the earthquake, I expected great difficulty in talking to survivors and officials. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In the first hours after arrival, while trying to make my way to the flattened city of Beichuan, a police officer at a roadblock called me into his car. I sighed, knowing that hours of negotiations and soft detention would ruin the day. I was wrong.
“Hey, everyone has already gone to Beichuan,” the officer said. “You should go find these other villages in the mountains. No other journalists have been there yet and the people need help.”
Rather than detaining me, he drew me a map. Over and again during those first few days of the tragedy’s aftermath, we witnessed extraordinary acts of openness and selflessness. Chinese volunteers from around the country jammed flights and trains to Sichuan to offer what help they could. Soldiers worked around the clock against sinking odds of finding survivors. Victims spoke, wept and grieved openly about lost children, family members, ruined lives. One young volunteer I met in Beichuan, unable to help any human survivors, rescued a dog from the rubble and brought it home.
A year later, the earthquake zone has returned to what most expected from the start: Foreign journalists blocked and detained, domestic press reverting to mostly happy recitations about optimism of survivors, and government reining in independent volunteer groups. The Foreign Correspondents Club of China has had several reports of journalists being roughed up, harassed and detained in the area.
Local officials said two areas had been closed to international press, most likely because top government leaders will visit this week for anniversary ceremonies. Chinese bloggers complain about incessantly good news coming from domestic media about the quake zones.
“Please do not tell me how beautiful the disaster area is right now,” wrote one blogger after returning from Sichuan this spring. “This is the time to remember, but not to sing our achievements. Instead of all this ridiculous praise, I would rather see you do something simple like use the space in your newspaper to publish the names of all the dead students.”
There were oddities amid China’s earthquake aftermath, like nagging questions about whether the army, too occupied with affairs in Tibet, arrived late to the rescue.
Yet this seemed like a new chapter for China, particularly in contrast to the Tangshan earthquake that killed at least 240,000 people 32 years earlier. Then a country still closed off from the world, China concealed the quake and closely guarded the real number of dead, and refused all offers of international aid. Now, a year later, critics like famed artist Ai Weiwei are accusing the government of doing the same, in concealing the true number of schoolchildren killed in crumbled schools.
On Monday, Xinhua reported that Sichuan Province had received about $2.3 billion in donations for earthquake relief thus far, but it’s not clear how much came from within China. The droves of volunteers have dropped off. A volunteer I met in Sichuan in November, a Beijing hairdresser, said he first went to help out along with a doctor, a lawyer and half a dozen others. Just six months after the disaster, he told me with a shrug: “It’s just me coming back now. Everyone else is too busy.”
Of course, some believe the national spirit of giving continues. Zhang Guoyuan, who started his own aid center in Chengdu after the quake, said the number of volunteers has tapered off, but the movement remains.
“People’s desire to help is still strong, but we have had to create more professional organizations,” Zhang said.
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