LONGTOUSHAN, China – Minutes after a deadly earthquake shook western China, disaster teams were on the move. Within hours, food, tents, and even a 4G cellphone network were in place, showing how a fast-developing China can bring its plentiful experience and enormous resources to bear in handling natural disasters.
Yet while the military is leading the relief operation — seizing on the opportunity to strut its considerable stuff and show its commitment to the public good — growing numbers of volunteers from among students, social groups and private businesses are a prominent element of the effort, even if they sometimes get underfoot.
"We're here to help however we can," said Song Lina, 22, a college student from the western city of Chongqing. She and a dozen friends in red baseball caps and T-shirts reading "Sending our love" were making the 5-kilometer (3-mile) hike up the ruined road to the hard-hit town of Longtoushan.
"We'll get to the town and go ask the soldiers and rescuers what they need us to do."
Sunday's 6.1-magnitude quake that struck in a mountainous part of Yunnan province left 589 dead as of Wednesday and brought a massive effort to clear roads and enter isolated mountain communities where people were still feared trapped in collapsed homes. On Wednesday, rescuers pulled a 50-year-old woman out of a pile of rubble, 67 hours after the quake struck. Liao Tengcui had serious head and waist injuries and couldn't move her left leg, but was conscious, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
More than 2,400 people were injured in the farming region of Ludian county — the country's deadliest temblor in four years and its biggest test of emergency response under President Xi Jinping.
Villages of bright blue tents for survivors have sprung up in and around Longtoushan, accompanied by pavilions and trucks offering cellphone and Internet service. Others offer to help with insurance claims, banking and medical services.
"It's not enough anymore to just provide somewhere for these people to sleep and something to eat. People need to maintain communication and all the other details of life to get back on their feet," said Li Weiping, who was helping staff a tent offering 4G service for a national carrier along Longtoushan's main street, clogged with rescue vehicles.
As Li spoke, one of the dozen military helicopters devoted to the relief effort clattered overhead to bring supplies to a field on the edge of town, circumventing the now-congested roads in the county of about 429,000 people.
According to official reports, 10,000 soldiers were dispatched to the rescue, along with dozens of troops from the air force and strategic missile command, presumably because of their facility with satellite communications and remote mapping. They were reinforced by more than 1,000 firefighters and over 1,300 military and civilian medical personnel. Also dispatched were 31,000 tents, while boxes of bottled water, instant noodles and potato chips practically overflowed onto the streets of Longtoushan, where relief workers have doubled the town's population.
A novel part of the Yunnan response was the use of drones to map and monitor a quake-formed lake that threatened to flood areas downstream. China has rapidly developed drone use in recent years, and they helped save time and money while providing highly reliable data, said Xu Xiaokun, an engineer with the army reserves.
China began bolstering its emergency response capabilities after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003. The country was largely caught unprepared for the nationwide outbreak and initially sought to suppress news about it until it could muster a response.
Those efforts gained pace with a massive 2008 earthquake in Sichuan that left almost 90,000 people dead or missing. While China's response gained mostly praise from the public, it was forced to rely almost exclusively on the military, and some isolated areas had to wait days for any relief.
Since then, China's spending on domestic security has outpaced its overall defense allocations, providing massive funding for its emergency services. China even sends rescue teams to overseas disasters, including helicopter crews to flood-hit Pakistan and a navy hospital ship to the Philippines after a typhoon last year.
The quake relief also is helping to burnish the credentials of President Xi, whose strong authority over the armed forces has helped make him the most powerful Chinese leader in decades.
"The party needs to reinforce its legitimacy by showing that it is helping the people and the political system in place is highly effective for such a purpose," said Steve Tsang, a China politics expert at England's Nottingham University. At the same time, the ruling Communist Party uses such disaster relief operations to get its citizens involved and mobilize support for its rule, Tsang said.
The current fad for volunteering marks a break from the party's former total leadership in disaster relief, something the party seems eager to encourage but uncertain how to guide.
The outpouring of hundreds of volunteers in Yunnan also stands in contrast with what critics say is a general unwillingness among Chinese to help those in need in more mundane situations, a response likely born out of a fear of being held responsible in the event the needy person should die — or even blame the do-gooder for their predicament. Chinese society was rocked by a crisis of conscience in 2011 when multiple passers-by were caught on security camera footage ignoring a toddler who had been struck by a van and eventually died.
"No doubt these cases caused a lot of criticisms among the public. They do reflect a social phenomenon that seems to be on the rise," said Lu Wengang, associate professor of public administration and emergency management at Jinan University in the southern city of Guangzhou. "It may very well be a result of a genuine decline in altruism in Chinese society."
But Lu said Chinese citizens also had traditionally pulled together in times of hardship and that the volunteering phenomena had a strong vein of patriotism.
"What does seem to be the problem is that the volunteers are not professional enough," Lu said. "They are active, they are enthusiastic, but they are not sufficiently trained to do the job."
The volunteers in Ludian came in all stripes: Well-equipped, orange-jumpsuit-wearing engineers. Middle-aged Communist die-hards wearing Mao pins on their old-fashioned army uniforms. Sneaker-shod college students with little to offer other than their enthusiasm.
Zhang Xian, 25, an auto mechanic and veteran disaster volunteer from the eastern province of Henan, said he's seen firsthand how enthusiasm can actually bog down official relief efforts.
"To be honest, they can be a bit of a nuisance," said Zhang, who came to Ludian to offer his services repairing damaged vehicles. "They don't have any skills and they just take up space and resources."