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Monday, May 19, 2008 - Page updated at 12:50 AM

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Chinese donate their newfound wealth after quake

Associated Press Writer

DUJIANGYAN, China —

A little lime green car with "Hello Kitty" written on the side may be an unlikely symbol of salvation.

But when computer salesman Li Guang and his girlfriend Huang Minxia saw on TV the devastation wrought by China's massive earthquake, they quickly loaded up their China-made Chery QQ compact with bottled water and instant noodles and drove more than 160 miles to lend a hand.

"It's a small car, but we just wanted to help," said Li, from Chongqing, a city next to hardest-hit Sichuan province, as he looked out over shattered homes near the town of Longhua at the end of a long, earthquake-cleaved mountain road.

In a China normally racing full-throttle toward getting rich, the deadliest disaster in a generation has touched off an unprecedented outpouring of charity, especially among newly wealthy and urban Chinese. Donations are flooding in, more money than charities in China collected all of last year, and so are volunteers.

In the week since the quake, donations have totaled $1.3 billion - 85 percent raised within China, the Xinhua News Agency said Sunday, citing the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

With living standards soaring with the economy's spectacular performance in recent years, a new group of rich Chinese are expressing interest in philanthropy. The ministry's China Charity Information Center projects that private foundations will overtake the government and aid and activist groups to become the country's main source of charity in five years.

Many, like Li, are taking advantage of soaring private car ownership and a new, expanding highway system to join the line of government and military convoys rumbling toward the epicenter.

Across the sprawling disaster zone, thousands of cars and SUVs decorated with large handwritten signs - "Hardship comes from one direction, help comes from everywhere" and "For the people, for the Beijing Olympics" - were coming from as far as the capital, Beijing, more than 900 miles away.

"I always wanted to take a long trip, and this is for a good cause," said Huang Daxian, a stock trader from Guangzhou, 760 miles away. Wearing a Bluetooth cell phone headset in his ear, he sat in his white Honda SUV full of donated clothing, instant noodles and bread rolls at a drop off point in Hanwang town where homeless from throughout the rolling quake-ravaged foothills have converged to seek help.

Private cars swarmed so thickly on roads that police set up donation drop-off points outside cities and towns to clear the way for military and government convoys. People living in tent camps beside cracked, debris-swept roads posted handwritten signs asking for urgently needed items - water, rice, vegetables. Cars paused to hand out a box or two and then drove on.

The giving is striking in a society where the communist government once provided all welfare. Private charities were banned until 2004. In the rush to embrace free markets and prosperity, Communist Party leaders, scholars and ordinary Chinese have decried the pervasive greed, selfishness and corruption.

"You give to the people you know," said Russell Leigh Moses, an analyst of Chinese politics based in Beijing.

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The vast majority of aid to help the millions left homeless by last Monday's quake is still coming from the government, on military convoys.

But this time instead of waiting for government-organized charity drives, people quickly acted on their own. Bank account numbers for making earthquake donations flashed on Web logs and mobile phones. Blood donation centers were overwhelmed with offers and began asking citizens to register in advance. Groups as unexpected as the China Beauty Parlors Association have issued public challenges to their millions of members to give.

"People are really united this time, and they're acting on their own without waiting to be asked," said Wu Yu, one of several employees at Weipeng, an investment consulting firm in neighboring Guizhou province, who loaded up two vans and a jeep with old clothing, bread and instant noodles, and were heading north of Dujiangyan toward the quake's epicenter.

Right after the quake struck - and rattled their offices 700 miles to the south in Guiyang - company executives called a meeting and decided to mobilize aid for the victims, Wu and others said. Having spent all their cash on gas and supplies, they slept in their cars.

"It sounds corny, but we're taught in schools and from our parents about helping others," said Ge Jian, the company's general manager. "Also we're Buddhists, most of us, and so want to be compassionate."

Chinese have responded generously before to natural disasters. After disastrous flooding swamped much of the country in 1998, the government-backed China Charity Foundation, created four years earlier, organized the country's first televised donation gala and raised more than $36 million. A growing sense of giving showed after the Asian tsunami in late 2004 with fundraising concerts and private donations, though some argued that such charity should start at home instead.

It was too early to tell whether the outpouring of charity is a sign of lasting change. The government remains wary of non-governmental organizations and citizens pushing into areas it sees as its rightful domain.

"We're in rescue and recovery mode, not in reconstruction of society mode," said Moses. But the giving "has been from the ground up, and the government to their credit has not been standing in the way," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Cara Anna reported from Beijing.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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