Thousands of volunteers and private groups rushed to help victims of the earthquake that devastated China's Sichuan Province in May. Now many people wonder whether the freedom they have had in the disaster area will carry over into broader rights for civic groups in the future. Jamila Trindle recently visited the town of Mianyang in Sichuan Province and has this report.

Teacher Shao Ling is helping out in a tent kindergarten that just opened in the community of Mianzhu. She says because of the big earthquake, her school has started its summer vacation, so while houses are being built she came here to volunteer, to try to help out.  

She now works in a kindergarten built by the You Cheng Foundation for Poverty Reduction, from Beijing.

Foundation member Wang Yi Bing says the earthquake has given non-governmental organizations and charities a chance to prove what they can do.

"The government allows all kinds of NGOs - if you want to go you can go, so I think it's a good opportunity both for the NGO and for the government to review," he says.

This access is new for private charities and civic groups. The government tightly regulates private groups, to make sure they do not challenge Communist Party rule. Many volunteers hope their aid to quake victims will encourage the government to loosen some of those controls.

Sociologist Jing Jun from Tsinghua University says the disaster has given groups a chance to show that they are not a threat to the government.

"Non-governmental organizations don't have many good opportunities as this to demonstrate that the government shouldn't have any fear of them ? to prove that they're not anti-government, they are non-government, but they are not anti-government," he says.   

However, Jing warns that unrestricted access in the disaster area can create problems.

"A lot of NGOs are over-eager to achieve and they sent their teams there within two, three days without a lot of preparation," he says. "I think that some of them should not have been there to begin with and they became bystanders, they watched what was going on."

Groups such as the You Cheng Foundation used their money-raising skills to finance relief efforts and advise local governments.

"Almost each and every local government needs help?. They are fully occupied with the daily issues, they don't have enough time to think about even the things beyond 10 days after, so if you can give them good advice, they will accept," says Wang Yi Bing.
Wang says private foundations are becoming more common in China.

"We are not the only one, there are more and more that come out like us because more and more entrepreneurs want to do something for society," he says.  

Kathleen Tierney is a disaster expert from the University of Colorado in the United States. She says sometimes out of a single disaster can come a whole new climate for private charities.

"If we look at the experience of Japan after the Kobe earthquake: In Japan, 1995 has come to be known as the first year of the volunteer," she says. "In Japan, the government had always been very wary of funding NGOs because they thought they would be funding the left, but Japan has managed to come to terms with the long term existence of some of these groups. And again it would be fascinating to see China's response."

The You Cheng Foundation's Wang Yi Bing hopes the government will see that there is room for private groups to work with the government.

"In the future, NGOs can do a lot in rebuilding," he says. "The government will rebuild the buildings and NGOs will rebuild the communities, the relationships between the people, that's the distribution between governments and NGOs."

For the government and for private organizations, the task ahead is enormous. The May 12 earthquake killed nearly 70,000 people and left millions homeless. Tens of thousands of homes, schools and other buildings need to be rebuilt or repaired. Some economists and reconstruction experts estimate it will take tens of billions of dollars and several years to repair the damage.