September 21, 2010
The 512 Voluntary Relief Center (wuyaoer minjian jiuyuan zhongxin) is one of two large NGO networks that emerged in Sichuan right after the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008. It was set up by several people with diverse background in NGO work in the office of a legally-registered NGO, the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association. Some of these people had worked together on a previous project in Sichuan involving a Hong Kong foundation that brought Hong Kong students to Sichuan to work on community projects. Unlike the other large NGO network started by Lu Fei (see my profile of him in an earlier post) and his friends, the 512 Center is still operating but last time I visited them in June of 2009, they were eking out an existence on a shoestring budget, and looking for someone to donate a SUV to replace the car they were using to drive into the earthquake-stricken areas. Gao is the coordinator of the 512 Center. We’ve met twice to discuss the NGO network that is part of the Center, and each time spent several hours sitting at a desk in the Center’s office talking, drinking tea, and eating tangerines. During our conversations, Gao would chain smoke. He’s an affable, grandfatherly-looking guy who liked to joke with the two women working in the office. Every so often, he’d also take a poke at me for being an “impatient American” but with a wink and a smile.
Gao was born in 1954 in one of the first group of students to attend university after the Cultural Revolution. He attended Yunnan University in 1978, the year after Yu Xiaogang, the celebrated founder of the Kunming-based environmental NGO, Green Watershed, and one of the members of the 512 Center’s network. After he graduated, he went to work for the provincial social science federation (shehui kexue lianhehui), a social organization (shetuan) for those specializing in the social sciences to exchange views and share information. In the early 2000s, the provincial government was engaged in streamlining its bureaucracies, and encouraged some of its officials to retire early. He was one of those officials, retiring at the age of 48 in 2002.
His interest in NGO work came from his participation in a Ford Foundation project while he was still at the social science federation. The project was an investigation into the problems with migrant children not having access to schools. He worked on a report that encouraged the government to improve the situation. After he retired, he went to work on another project funded by UNESCO and a French organization helping children in poor areas.
Since 2005, he’s also been trying to register an NGO that he calls Sichuan Shangmin Social Development Research Association. He describes it as an independent, nonprofit, research institute that would provide research on social problems to the government, public and other NGOs. Gao said he was encouraged by a government policy put out in 2004 promoting grassroots social science organizations. Apparently, the officials at the Civil Affairs office didn’t get that policy document because everytime he’s applied to register, he’s been rejected.
When asked why he went into NGO work, he said it was a combination of things. One is socialism. He grew up in the Maoist era, and he believes not all of the old education and propaganda was bad. “Socialism is better than capitalism,” he said. “Capitalism is about money, socialism is about people.” But he prefers to use the terms, “social development” or “sustainable development” in place of socialism.
Another reason he’s doing NGO work is that he’s retired, has time on his hands and economic security. He can now do what he wants to do, and what gives his life meaning. He’s also been influenced by his work with international organizations. He does not agree with everything they do, but he likes the idea of using participatory methods for promoting social development.
Gao might have one more influence that I did not ask him about – his wife who happens to be Guo Hong, a sociologist at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences who teaches classes on civil society, has been an advisor to the 512 Center, and an advocate for NGOs in China.