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May 12, 2011

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Disaster spawns desire to help society

THE catastrophic Wenchuan earthquake three years ago today in Sichuan Province shocked people across the country - and united the nation in a way previously not imagined.

It also impelled a group of warm-hearted Chinese business elites to set up a volunteer rescue and aid team. The Xuanzang Rescue and Aid Team was established only one month after the disaster.

At present there are about 60 team members, most of whom are EMBA alumni from top business schools. They don't want to do charity on a case-by-case basis, instead, they hope to make charity an integral part of their lives.

Huang Ming, president of Life Express Group, co-founded the team and remains a director today. Like many other members, Huang was once leading a sedentary life. But a trip to the Gobi Desert in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region changed his life.

In 2006, after attending the annual "Race in the Gobi Desert" held by famous business schools, Huang discovered his love for outdoor sports and a hidden desire to help people. He made friends during the race, and some later became co-founders of the Xuanzang Rescue and Aid Team.

"We found that our motivation to do good things goes far beyond traditional ways of donating money or items," Huang says. "We want to offer more direct aid and access to people who need help."

The team's name is in part a tribute to Xuanzang, an ancient Buddhist monk who traveled to India (he started the journey in 629 AD) to study Buddhism. He returned to China about 17 years later to promote the religion. The monk's perseverance, self-sacrifice and unyielding spirit provided inspiration and encouragement to Huang and his colleagues.

To mark the third anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, the team has sponsored posters and outdoor ads focused on disaster prevention and self-protection tips. The posters will be placed in cities around China this month. The team will also host a series of free lectures to raise awareness about what to do in an emergency.

A major challenge for Huang and his colleagues, however, was how to develop and position the team. They explored how non-government rescue organizations work to better decide which path to take.

All Xuanzang team members have taken part in various training programs such as firefighting, chemical defense and maritime rescue. Since 2009, they have also taken courses twice a year at the China National Earthquake Rescue training base in Beijing. The training includes a summary of earthquake disaster risks, on-site assessment, search techniques and other basic rescue skills.

The team has accumulated practical experience since forming. Members have done on-site investigations in Wenchuan, the Sichuan earthquake epicenter, and in Chuxiong, Yunnan Province, after a quake rocked the region in July 2009. They were also one of the quickest civilian rescue teams to reach Yushu, Qinghai Province, after the area was hit by a big quake in April 2010.

"It took us only about 30 hours traveling 500 kilometers by off-road vehicles to arrive at the site of the Yushu earthquake," Huang says.

Yu Miao was among the five people who arrived in Yushu within 30 hours after the earthquake hit. They not only brought there emergency kits such as water and dry food, but also quickly joined the rescue work together with the China International Search and Rescue Team. Yu says he's greatly impressed and moved by the humanity and kindness of people facing disasters.

"The ruins of the earthquake was in sharp contrast with the picturesque landscapes we had seen in neighboring areas," Yu recalls. "We visited schools and families there to see what we can offer. And we sent back on-site reports to our colleagues in Beijing and Shanghai to provide timely aids."

Most of the Xuanzang members are business managers. They have great analytical and organizing abilities and can assemble goods and services for disaster victims very quickly. For instance, soon after the Yushu earthquake they successfully raised 700,000 yuan (US$107,790) to provide desks and chairs for students there.

In that sense, Huang considers their job supplementary to professional rescue teams. Xuanzang members take charge of different positions based on their expertise in various fields such as medicine, communications technology, media and logistics.

Team member Shen Lei, a director of corporate standard and strategy, is now working on building an emergency communications network for disaster-hit areas.

"My life used to be a monotonous routine of 'home and office' until I joined the team in 2009," Shen says. "I never thought that life could have new meaning and be so sweet."

The team has visited developed countries several times to learn about successful rescue strategies and emergency defense plans.

Huang says China lacks a quick emergency response mechanism compared with developed countries and regions.

"It's said German voluntary rescue teams can arrive at a disaster site within two hours, but China needs about two hours to organize and send a team," Huang says.

Huang also emphasizes the importance of disaster drills. Through a series of exercises they've hosted regularly for residents in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen (Guangdong Province), people have learned to cope with worry and anxiety in the face of disasters.

Since some of the team members are entrepreneurs, the team receives its funding mostly from donations from enterprises and individuals. Team members also make individual donations. By the end of this year, a charity foundation is also expected to be set up.

Some members have even introduced to some demobilized soldiers from the China International Search and Rescue Team to work for their own enterprises in support of developing a civilian rescue system.

According to Professor Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist from Fudan University, many people discover their true self in life by helping others.

"Given relative laws, policy support and guidance, civilian voluntary rescue teams will continue to play an increasingly important role in emergencies," says Gu. "These volunteers are highly motivated and they can offer humanitarian relief and professional management advice in post-disaster construction."


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