World News

China Communists praise fast quake relief

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s ruling Communist Party said on Monday its rapid response to the Sichuan earthquake demonstrated its commitment to the people, but acknowledged that voluntary groups might have a role to play in reconstruction.

Individual citizens raced to help party members, government officials and troops after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan on May 12, killing up to 80,000 people and leaving 5 million homeless.

From taxi drivers ferrying the injured to hospitals to car clubs delivering supplies, the quake volunteers have such cachet that party members dispatched to the disaster zone also call themselves ‘volunteers.’

Premier Wen Jiabao also won respect among the 1.3 billion Chinese watching the tragedy unfold on television by rushing to the scene within hours to encourage rescue workers and give hope to those trapped in the rubble.

The Communist Party’s deployment of 17,500 officials and 2.2 million members who “faced danger and difficulty without retreating” to help survivors who “shed blood and tears without bowing their heads” showed the value of its “people first” philosophy, said Ouyang Song, vice minister of the party’s organization department.

The party supports and encourages the healthy development of volunteer organizations as part of the development of society, he told reporters.

“The volunteers’ response “shows the party has reached out to all the people,” Ouyang said. “The role of the volunteers does not conflict with the role of the primary party organization. It shows that orderly and good participation will not reduce or weaken the leading role of the party.”

Ouyang said non-governmental organizations (NGO) could contribute to the reconstruction work as long as they did it legally and contributed to a stable society.

Some NGOs, including volunteers, temples and foreign groups, have had to dodge restrictions to get into the large, mountainous area of Sichuan struck by the quake.

The Communist Party, which has ruled mainland China since 1949, has presided over a gradual opening of society in the last two decades, but remains wary of any organization that might threaten its power.

The massive relief effort, taking food, tents and clothing to millions in towns and remote villages despite blocked and damaged roads and bridges, and the task of rebuilding homes and infrastructure, is expected to take up to three years.

Party members have contributed 1.7 billion yuan ($245 million) to the reconstruction effort through voluntary additional membership fees, Ouyang said. That is an average of 24 yuan ($3.5) from each of the 73 million party members.

He emphasized that members must not be coerced into paying the additional amount.

Reporting by Lucy Hornby, editing by Tim Pearce