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Disaster as an Agent of Change: Institutions, Planning, and the Construction of Urban Resilience

Jia Lu's project examines the level of civil society involvement in people’s lives.

February 8, 2011


The title of my research project is “Disaster as Agents of change: institutions, planning process, and the construction of urban resilience”. The outcome of this summer project is to better understand the local condition two years after the May 12, 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. With an aim to document the level of civil society involvement in people’s lives, I categorize the findings of my trip in the following sections.

In order to better prepare myself for the local conditions, I started out by conducting internet research regarding the current involvement of domestic non-governmental organizations that are active particularly in Chengdu, Sichuan. I narrowed down to two NGOs and they are: NGO Disaster Preparedness Center (NGO

备灾中心), 5.12 Civil Assistance Service Center ({C} {C} {C} 四川“5.12”民间救助服务中心). I have also identified an informant at the Sichuan Emergency Response Office. The fieldwork took place during the month of July and I made my living arrangements in the city of Chengdu. I occasionally travelled to Dujiangyan through high-speed railway, which only takes around 30 minutes from Chengdu city center to Dujiangyan. During the first a couple of days’ stay in Chengdu, I focused my attention on understanding the activities of the two currently active domestic NGOs. The main office of 5.12 Civil Assistance Service Center located at the heart of the Chengdu. The main function of this organization is to provide information to other NGOs coming from outside of the Sichuan Province and coordinate their service with the needed communities in the earthquake impacted areas. I interviewed one of their program managers regarding the origin of the organization and the type of their current activities. There were several main points from our conversation that are worth mentioning here. First, the survival of the organization depends on orderly participation and service efficiency. To hear such comments from a regular program manager from a profit-making firm is not a surprise, but to hear this from an ordinary Chinese citizen who voluntarily participated in the establishment of an NGO for disaster recovery is rare. I did not expect these kinds of non-profit organizations to survive two years after the earthquake. Although a shortage of financial support was a big issue for their operation, the organization managed to use its limited international donations to keep its current operation. The majority of its service focuses on information coordination servicing NGOs from outside the Sichuan province. These NGOs are often interested in making an effort for the recovery of the Wenchuan earthquake, but are not familiar with the local conditions and in need of information on where to start their work. This way, the 5.12 Civil Service Assistance Center acts as a hub of information exchange and networked web connecting each participating NGOs outside the area. Secondly, there are still doubts regarding some of the current statement spreading out from the Chinese academia that the year of 2008 represented the “birth year” of China’s civil society. Since the earthquake, significant changes such as the realization of citizenship, the rise of volunteerism at the level of ordinary citizens and private enterprises, and the impact on government’s policy towards NGO regulations. However, when I asked about possible collaborations between NGOs and the government branches, I was being told that there are still institutional barriers in the current system. There is a lack of a set of rules and regulations compatible to the rising numbers of NGOs and activities of volunteerism in order to sustain their long-term survival.

The NGO Disaster Preparedness Center happened to be located in the same office as the 5.12 Civil Assistance Service. This made the arrangements of interviews with them rather easy. The Preparedness Center first established on May 14th, 2008, two days after the May 12th earthquake. The main focus of this organization is help communities build capacities not only to recover from the earthquake but also can be sustained to build better community living for everyone. One of their project managers accepted my interview and introduced their current work. Sustainable community development, environmental protection, and taking care of the elders as well as women and children whose families were impacted by the earthquake were among the top priorities of the work of this NGO. I was also introduced some projects that could possibly involve the prototype of collaboration among NGO, government, and private enterprise s.

Over the next a few days, I met with one of the directors in the Chengdu Planning department. The purpose of meeting someone at the government level is for me to record the different perspectives of the recovery efforts. Among the many questions that I was planning to ask this director, the involvement of civil society was the key concept in my mind. How did the recovery planning process take into account the actions of “citizen participation” that was being emphasized by the government’s planning document in 2008? How has the permanent housing recovery plan being implemented? What were the issues occurred throughout the process? How did the citizens’ opinion being adopted? Were there any kinds of institutional innovations throughout the recovery planning process? These were some of the questions I intended to ask when visiting this director of the planning department. Every fieldwork has its own surprises. The director I was planning to meet at the office turned out having to attend an immediate meeting after greeting me. I ended up having a rather long conversation with two of his engineers. To my surprise, the amount of information I got from them was unexpected important for me to understand citizen involvement in the housing recovery planning process. First of all, recovery planning has been and is still an integral part of the greater Chengdu rural-urban regional development plan. Different government branches have been involved in the actual design of the permanent housings for local citizens at a very early stage. Citizens had been actively involved in raising their opinions when consulted by the planning department as well as the local planning firms that were involved in the process. Throughout the talk, I had a better idea and understanding over the overall picture of the recovery planning effort of Chengdu. To my encouragement, there are signs of active citizen participation at the local level and the involvement of civil society does not just mean the formation of NGOs. This is topic that deserves further investigation. Secondly, I was also referred to a number of newly built towns that were significantly damaged by the earthquake. These model towns became well known due to their attention to the needs of the local people, integration into the nature and the environmental friendly characters. This could be a possible topic on the policy innovations in disaster recovery and regional planning.

I also visited the newspaper archives in Chengdu. One of my informants is a journalist working at the Chengdu Daily Newspaper. He kindly recommended and gave me a book called “Dong He Kou jue lian”. The title means “A love story at Dong He Kou”. At a later date, I realized that Dong He Kou is the name of a place in Qingchuan county, which is one of the significantly impacted areas as the result of the earthquake. Some villages were buried completely by the movement of the earth in seconds. Although with a novel tone, the book described the moment of life and death among parents and children, among lovers, among husbands and wives. I was deeply moved and shocked by these stories and it opened my eyes to allow me to see the earthquake from the eyes of those who actually experienced it. In the Chengdu Daily newspaper archive, I had the opportunity to review all the news documents related to the Wenchuan earthquake. One article published in May, 2009 caught my eye because it documented the self-organization of citizen groups to actively organize themselves to better coordinate their needs to the government throughout the housing recovery process in several townships in Dujiangyan. This is a piece of news that further research investigation is needed.

One of the most exciting trips made during this fieldwork was the one to Dujiangyan, which is part of the greater Chengdu city region. Although it has been two years after the earthquake, some people still live in the temporary housing placement. After entering the lottery system, they were waiting to be selected as the lucky ones to move into the new apartments. The living condition in these temporary housing placements exhibited contrasting differences with the nearby newly built apartment complexes. The former were built into flats with just one floor and whole community has to use public toilets located outside their homes. Located not far from some of these temporary housing placements are the brand new communities with apartment complexes. They displayed sharp aesthetical contrast to the temporary housing scenes. With the newly painted roads leading to the gates of the new communities, with the convenient stores on the side of the street, the neatly planted trees on the sidelines, and the grand community centers decorated with shining glasses, no wonder those who moved into these apartments always have smiles on their faces. The city center of Dujiangyan, located not far from these temporary and newly built housing constructions in the outskirt, was where I saw the most changes in people’s lives. In 2008, I visited the heart-breaking sites of destructions in this city just two months after the May 12 earthquake. With a group of planning scholars from the United States, we were invited to a recovery planning debriefing hosted by the city mayor of Chengdu. Two years later, when I came to see the city again, what I saw was people having a completely new life. Busy streets full of cars, people shopping, and tourists coming from all over the world visiting this historical city known for its ancient irrigation system. The only thing that I found odd was the places where buildings collapsed during the earthquake were still empty grounds and was being fenced off. I was told by a local taxi driver that those areas were cleared off but left empty since the quake. New buildings will eventually being built but the Dujiangyan city was putting a priority on the housing reconstructing on the townships located further away from the city center. Those were some of the harder hit areas by the 2008 earthquake.

Due to the limited number of days to stay in Chengdu and Dujiangyan, I did not have a chance to go visit the townships that was mentioned in the local newspaper in Dujiangyan. But I did spend the last day visiting Yingxiu, the center of the Wenchuan earthquake. It is a relatively small town about two hours’ driving from Chengdu. There, I saw the remains of the middle school that collapsed during the earthquake. It has now become a national monument for people to remember the devastating impact of the 2008 earthquake. In contrast to this scenery of desperation, I see hope. A piece of land not so far from the school was still under busy construction and from the dust and dirt fog, I saw a vast development of housing construction was under way. People there will soon start a new life with their new home.

This summer fieldwork helped me further develop my dissertation research proposal. The first time I visited the city of Dujiangyan, I first encountered the government’s comprehensive plan for the entire Chengdu region and particularly the intention of incorporating citizen participation as part of the housing reconstruction process. What immediately came to my mind were the questions: How would the citizens participate in the process? How would the citizen initiatives be enabled? Is there anything about the Chinese society that would make this process unique? Would the earthquake change the way planning is conducted in the longer term? The second time, which is through this summer’s fieldwork, not only enforced my strong desire to answer these questions but also helped me collected some pilot data so that confirms the feasibility of developing my project into a dissertation project.

Click here to view projects of other 2010-2011 USCI Graduate Summer Fieldwork Grant receipients.