Chinese People Learned Bitter Lessons in Sichuan

August 14, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
mourning for victims of the earthquake on May 19, 2008, in Chengdu
Wreaths are lain on Tianfu Square in Chengdu City, capital of Sichuan Province, on May 19, 2008, in honor of the victims of the devastating May 12 earthquake. (China Photos/Getty Images)

As He Qinglian points out in “Beijing Flood Inspires Little Charity,” Chinese are turning a cold eye toward requests for charity to relieve the Beijing flood victims in part because of their bitter experience with giving to relieve the victims of the Sichuan earthquake.

The reports of the devastation from the earthquake that struck Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008, touched a chord. Entire villages had been flattened, the official death toll would eventually number 70,000, and almost 5 million were left homeless. Relief efforts sprang up spontaneously throughout China and in the Chinese diaspora around the world.

According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Chinese in China donated 4.185 billion yuan (US$657 million) in the first week. Eventually, giving inside China would total US$12 billion, according to a report by the NGO Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

In addition to opening their purses, Chinese tried personally to lend a hand. There were reports of caravans of SUVs loaded with supplies traveling long distances from the prosperous East in an attempt to succor the victims—an act that seemed to contradict the reports of a go-go China whose population was consumed by its own selfishness.

But such help was not always welcome. For instance, a popular blogger was arrested for raising money and attempting personally to deliver the funds to those in need in Sichuan.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has remained hostile to the blossoming of a civil society in China. Independent initiatives create enterprises independent of the state and thus threaten the leading role of the CCP.

The laws in China require that charity be funneled through two organizations that are closely affiliated with the state—the Red Cross Society of China and the China Charity Foundation.

With the state’s control of charitable giving comes the opportunity for corruption. The Beijing Times reported a study of earthquake donations that, using only official figures, found that 80 percent of the 76 billion yuan donated went into government accounts.

In a September 2010 story, The Epoch Times reported that China’s National Audit Office (NAO) received a total of 1,962 reports of cases of corruption in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake rescue-relief effort.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that local officials in some areas exaggerated earthquake losses to the tune of 1.23 billion yuan (US$180 million). Presumably by overreporting losses, officials could make greater claims for relief funds.

In other cases, some governmental departments significantly held up the distribution of relief funds and goods to the victims of the disaster, according to the aforementioned Epoch Times report.

Meanwhile, the people of Sichuan Province have complained for years at how poor were the efforts at making their lives whole. In some cases, complaints have given rise to protests.

On April 25, 2012, farmers in Linjiang Town, near Wenchuan, the epicenter of the May 2008 quake, broke into the local government building and smashed tables and chairs, according to an April 2012 Epoch Times report.

According to a resident who asked to remain anonymous for personal safety, officials of Lianjiang Town stole hundreds of millions of yuan from the earthquake poverty-alleviation fund—money that was meant to help victims of the Wenchuan quake.

Another villager said: “The villagers opened a cabinet containing the financial documents and discovered that the monies were taken by Party officials and their families. Every family received as much as 100,000 yuan (US$15,800). The villagers were outraged. The CCP is so corrupt—every official in it is corrupt.”

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