CHENGDU, China — Nearly a year after her sister died in the earthquake that devastated rural Sichuan, Li Minhui found herself standing on a field of ruined sod outside the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, witness to yet another ground-shaking event.
This one, though, was man-made.
“Music like this is for young people!” shouted Li, 40, as she squinted across the field to a stage where a Californian rock band, Army of Freshman, was treating a mob of eager Chinese teens and 20-somethings to wave after wave of concussive pop-punk. “But I think I’m starting to like it!”
The Zebra Music Festival was one of three multi-day rock shows held in China over the Labor Day holiday this year. In addition to a few foreign acts, the festival featured a who’s-who of Chinese underground bands and attracted more than 100,000 spectators, making it one of the largest rock festivals the country has ever seen. More notable, however, was the presence there of people like Li.
A former migrant worker from Jiulong township, in Mianzhu County, Li made the two-hour journey to the festival to sell handicrafts — in her case, animal figurines made of strung-together beads — and cups of home-brewed rice wine out of a tent set up near the main stage by the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women. The BCDCRW, Rural Women for short, was just one of a battery of NGOs invited to participate in what organizers described as China’s first ever “consciousness-raising” rock festival.
The effort to promote civic-mindedness has long been a daunting one in China, where an obsession with material wealth and strict management of good works by the government has created conditions ripe for indifference — especially amongst the country’s increasingly comfortable middle-class youth.
But recently things have started to change, some NGO workers and social activists say. For that, many credit the event that robbed Li of her sister.
The Sichuan earthquake, which struck May 12, 2008, attracted millions of dollars in individual donations and prompted an unprecedented flood of volunteerism. The tragedy has since been widely described a watershed for civil society in China that improved the status of NGOs in the eyes of the government and mobilized members of the supposedly immobile “post-80s” and “post-90s” generations.
According to Scarlet Li, CEO of Zebra Media, plans were already in the works to hold a major festival, but the earthquake convinced her to shift its focus.
“After the earthquake catastrophe, to see the reactions of the youth in China, I was shocked,” Li (no relation to Li Minhui) said as the festival was revving up. “I think, deep in their hearts, a lot of Chinese young people do have a sense of social responsibility, but for some reason, before, they didn't have ways of expressing it.”
The festival was held in a brand new 3,500-acre park in Chengdu’s northeastern suburbs with sod laid down just days before. The main stage was a 25,000-square foot behemoth manned by visual effects technicians flown in from Hong Kong. Flat surfaces everywhere were plastered with signs proclaiming the festival’s slogan: “I Care.”
Li said her goal was to create a Chinese version of the U.K.’s legendary Glastonbury, and the festival did end up, in some respects, resembling its model. There was a frantic human crush along the fencing in front of the main stage, the occasional Mohawk or dreadlocks sighting, and (on the first day) the hint of a flirtation with mud.
Seventeen local and international NGOs sent representatives to set up booths, including heavy-hitters like the World Wild Life Fund for Nature (WWF) and Oxfam.
One of the most successful NGOs at the festival, judged by sheer number of visitors, was a Chinese all-volunteer group called 1 KG More that had set up a booth offering festival-goers a chance to buy children’s books to donate to schools in the earthquake zone. Each book cost less than $3 and came with matching numbered bracelets so the buyers could keep in touch with students who benefited from the donation. Of the 17 boxes of books the group had brought with them, only four were left midway through the second day.
“We’re not forcing you do to do anything,” explained the group’s spokesman, a 22-year-old college junior who wanted to be known as Lu Cha (“Green Tea”). “All you do is buy a book. The idea here is freedom.”
Still, 1 KG More had limited success reaching the festival’s target group: Most of its book buyers, Lu Cha said, were parents with young children.
Drinking a bottle of baijiu at the skewer stand by the DJ stage, He Long, 23, a local college student, said he wasn’t surprised.
“Rock music is a form of catharsis,” he said, shaking his head at the festival’s slogan as he sipped from his bottle. “When you come to an event like this, you don’t want to think about social problems. Happiness is the most important thing.”
Li Erni, a 23 year-old from Chengdu who was selling homemade cards in the craft section near the entrance, was slightly more analytical. “In our parents' days, the economy was still developing, so people cared about finding enough to eat, a house, clothes. We care, too, but what we care about is enjoying life.”
One NGO that had some success with the festival’s core audience was Aibai, a center for GLBT youth and HIV-awareness in Chengdu, which was giving away condoms printed with HIV-prevention messages.
“People here really don’t know much about HIV, how you can catch it, how you can avoid it,” said Liao Rujun, a 22-year-old public health major at Sichuan University who was volunteering with the group.
According to one of the Aibai employees, 20 percent more people were willing to accept condoms at the Zebra Fest than at the group’s other promotional events, which often involve rural residents.
But Aibai was also an example of the limitations the NGOs faced at Zebra — and in China generally.
Jiang Hua, director of Aibai’s Chengdu branch, said a certain amount of self-censorship was the price of entry to the Zebra Fest. “From the start, the organizing committee asked us not to emphasize gay issues, so we decided to focus on HIV and gender-equality instead.”
The Zebra Fest was partly funded by the Chengdu government, and involved the participation of state-run media. Li said Zebra’s relationship with Chengdu officials was good. “Often publicity departments get very nervous about these things, but this time, they were very very relaxed. It’s because I told them, music lovers are not political animals, they like to listen to music.”
The level of support the city gave the festival was evident not just in the funding. According to a top official at the Poly Group Chengdu, the developer of the park where the festival was held, city officials pressed the developer to rush its work so the park would be ready in time for the event.
While the true definition of civil society does not admit government involvement, NGOs in China and those who would promote them appear to have no choice but to accept it.
“It’s a sort of compromised civil society, but one that makes sense in China,” said Tom Gold, a UC Berkeley sociologist who has studied the development of civil society in China for much of the past two decades.
Liu Daqing, director of the Rural Women program that brought Li Minhui to the festival, was optimistic the position of NGOs would continue to improve on the strength of new interest generated by the earthquake and “improved communication” with the government in the months since. “2008 was year zero for NGOs in China,” she says. “People have developed a consciousness of their responsibilities towards others.”
The people at Aibai, meanwhile, were content to work around the censorship by draping a nearby tree in a rainbow flag and sporting gay-themed T-shirts. “We use a lot of gay symbols so the comrades know what we’re about,” said Jiang, using China’s slang term for homosexuals. “And the rest, well, we just educate them about HIV.”
Liao, the Aibai volunteer, agreed, saying the group’s biggest problem was the shape of the gigantic condom suits they were wearing. “We had to make the tips extra big to fit our heads in, so some people thought we were toothpaste,” she explained. “I think next year we’ll have to write on a sign on them that says ‘I’m a condom.’”
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