Informal networks key to youth-led COVID-19 response in China

Youth organisations abundance of time, social media savvy and commitments to transparency allowed them to be faster and more effective in responding to COVID19, says Ting Zhang.

During the height of the COVID-19 crisis in China, youth groups spontaneously mobilised to provide emergency assistance. They responded to medical supplies and sanitary product shortages, helped increase access to online education, and much more. In some instances youth groups were able to respond much faster or more effectively than larger organisational programmes. 

Under my capacity as a co-research of the Resilient Realities research project, I have conducted a series of interviews with leaders of youth-led COVID19 response initiatives in China (including those operated with support with overseas Chinese networks). I discovered the key to youth groups spontaneity and impactfulness comes down to three crucial interconnected factors: time, social media, and transparency. These three factors were building blocks for the successful utilisation of social networks to respond to the pandemic.  

The author (bottom right) and the rest of the Resilient Realities Research team.

Social networks, or guanxi in Chinese, are a fundamental part of Chinese culture and a cornerstone of a collectivist society. Such networks, both formal and informal, demonstrate a strong degree of trust, interpersonal and community relations. In normal times, these networks shape business deals and serve personal interests; in times of crisis, these networks can help individuals quickly mobilise towards a common goal with a high degree of efficiency, resourcefulness, and trust. 

Time 

As COVID-19 brought a majority of work and schools to a halt, young people were left with more time on their hands. Many chose to volunteer their time towards response efforts.  

Multiple youth leaders and volunteers I spoke to were motivated by a strong sense of social responsibility- to do something that they believed to be well within their capacity. Others also described volunteering as a great medium to alleviate one’s own sense of anxiety during quarantine by focusing their energies on alleviating a common and immediate problem. Without the motivation, and ultimately free hours, that young people were willing to put towards the response, communities would have been less resilient to the dangers and damages of COVID-19. 

Social Media  

As the most active group on social media, young people were often the first to receive new updates on COVID-19. They acted as amplifiers to share critical prevention measures with their communities. What’s more, this closeness to social media was an important ear to the ground. It played a critical role for young people to acquire knowledge quickly about unmet needs, organise through informal networks, and share critical information with each other about operational know-how. 

After gathering news on Weibo, a twitter-like Chinese social media platform, about a young girl’s attempted suicide in rural China due to a lack of access to online education, Chen Kaijun was prompted to act and co-founded Project Guangyuan, or “Light Aid.” She, along with three other co-founders, solicited donated electronic devices and distributed  them to schools in rural China to assist students with the sudden transition to online education. 

Project Guangyuan’s call  for donations of electronic devices to bridge the digital divide. Photo from Project Guangyuan’s (光源行动) public Wechat account.

The Project Guangyuan team launched their initiative on the social media platform Wechat. They simultaneously called for device donations, volunteers, and schools with need to make contact. Within a few days they had enlisted over 400 volunteers and had forged connections with a number of  private and public organisations to drive donations and provide professional advice on operations. 

Similarly, Liang Yu, was compelled to do something when she realised feminine hygiene products had failed to make it onto the official list of urgent essential items, therefore, female medical workers and patients alike had trouble accessing such items during city-wide lockdowns. She launched the #Standbyher campaign, which has gained local and international acclaim, from her personal weibo profile. Her initiative quickly went from a one woman call to a 91 person strong volunteer team delivering 320,000 pairs of safety pants and 301,023 pairs of disposable underwear to 123 hospitals and medical teams in less than a month. 

“Stand by Her” Campaign Poster. Photo from @梁钰(liáng yù) Stacey’s Weibo

Not only has Liang’s campaign helped alleviate the plight of female health workers and patients, but it has also started a mass discussion around gender issues in China. Liang attributed a large part of her campaign success to the momentum and leverage it was able to gain via social media. 

Transparency 

Public trust in government designated donation channels is low due to past corruption scandals and the mishandling of face mask donations during the early stages of the pandemic. Youth initiatives on the other hand are highly transparent and encourage public supervision on their work. Liang stated: “We [the Stand by Her team] post daily public announcements of our donations progress and share our insights. That way people can easily assess our work and hence why people are willing to trust us.” 

With most donations pouring in from informal networks on unofficial channels like Wechat groups, youth organisations are aware of the high level of trust needed to carry out such initiatives and take operational transparency very seriously, resulting in sufficient and sometimes even a surplus of donations. 

The Power of Young People 

As the pandemic died down in China post-March, some youth initiatives ceased operations while others shifted operational focus or went on to channel donations for other countries in need. With life moving to a new normal, we must remember how agile, efficient and effective youth organisations were and how essential they have been in ensuring community resilience. Chen from Project Guangyuan emphasized that the advantages of youth mobilisation is that, “it is self-organised, organic and does not require a lot of initial resources, whether it be manpower or products, to gain momentum.” 

Throughout this pandemic, we have witnessed youth organisations accomplish amazing feats with initially nothing but free time, the power of social media, and the willpower to do good. With a clear focus, sustained funding and institutional support, youth organisations have the potential to reach new heights and create lasting changes in their communities.

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Ting Zhang

Ting Zhang

Ting was born on the island of Hainan and grew up in San Francisco and Beijing. She is passionate about cross-cultural dialogue, global affairs, and social impact. She studied International Politics and Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina with semesters abroad in Singapore and Hong Kong. Ting has launched initiatives to cultivate a new generation of young changemakers in China in the fields of philanthropy and social innovation. She has also worked at the UN, diplomatic NGOs, as well as American and Chinese think tanks. Ting served on the board of a student-led philanthropic foundation where she led trips to rural America and China. She is also a Yiqiao fellow, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-backed public service fellowship in China, and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper.

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Informal networks key to youth-led COVID-19 response in China

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