Chapter II: On Killing, Eating and Saving Babies

January 30, 2009 - 4:00pm -- Nick Young

The preceding chapter of this work in progress departs from glimpses of Kunming, in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, where my family and I made our home for the first five of our 12 years in China. My wife, Kate Wedgwood, spent those years directing Save the Children UK’s extensive China programme while I established an independent publication, China Development Brief.

This second chapter back-tracks to our 1994-95 transition through Hong Kong. It pauses to consider that city’s nature as a cultural and social as well as an economic entrepôt and then goes on to discuss the—at that time, topical—subject of child abandonment in China. This serves as an introduction to many of the complexities of working for ‘development’ there.

Following chapters will similarly maintain a loosely chronological narrative while each including a discussion of a significant social issue—education and pedagogy in Chapter 3; rural development and ‘participation’ in Chapter 4; gender in Chapter 5, and so on. Recurrent, ‘cross-cutting’ themes are: the respective organisations my Kate and I built; international engagement with China more generally (especially in international aid and private philanthropy but also reflecting on academic and mainstream media representations); and ‘civil society’ in China.

Endnotes are marked in square brackets:[1]

Bidding is now open for rights to the whole manuscript.

Out of Africa

Our journey to China began in Lilongwe, Malawi, where from 1992 Kate was working as Water Programme Manager for Save the Children UK and I was stringing for The Financial Times. Kate was responsible for delivering potable water to a million Mozambican refugees camped along the border and for drilling deep boreholes to supply hundreds of Malawian villages left thirsty by a three-year drought. She managed a team of 17 expatriate male engineers who had encyclopaedic knowledge of things such as halogen headlamps and self-tapping screws; and she also had to coax funds from the US Agency for International Development (inter alia), negotiate deals with red-necked (white) Zimbabwean drilling contractors and try to ‘build the capacity’ of a water ministry whose ranks were being decimated by AIDS. We seemed to spend half our time at funerals.

I had the less demanding job of delivering news from a place hardly anyone outside of Southern Africa was interested in or had even heard of. Still, I managed to keep fairly busy as the 28 year reign of the 90 year old dictator, His Excellency the President for Life, Ngwasi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, drew to a close under pressure from international aid donors who, now that the Cold War was over, demanded democratisation in return for their dollars. We saw a referendum on multi-party rule followed by elections (under procedures devised by foreign experts) and, in the run-up to these, an outbreak of fighting between parts of the national army and the Malawi Young Pioneers, Banda’s personal guard. After the shooting subsided I spent several hours in a ransacked and looted government building, rooting through files of correspondence between John Tembo, Banda’s right hand man and heir apparent, and a London consulting group that was advising the ruling Malawi Congress Party on how to cling to power. (Funny how nearly everyone deplores a military mercenary but political mercenaries can pass respectable muster as management strategists.) Meanwhile, the World Bank was running seminars to introduce aspiring politicians to macroeconomics. Newly founded political parties regularly knocked at my door to tell me about their plans to ‘promote democracy and alleviate poverty’ but were unable to articulate this in terms of any specific policy. The parties were differentiated almost exclusively by regional identity and it was clear from the outset that electoral victory would go to the biggest ethnic group (which was not Banda’s—he had been brought in, at Independence, as a compromise candidate to unite the new nation, which he promptly did: along the fascist lines that he had studied during many years in Europe.) This ethnic politics did not feel good at a time when, not far to the north, so much slaughter was going on in the colonial invention of a state called Rwanda. The shallowness of the political process in Malawi and the foreign fingerprints all over it made it hard to be optimistic about the future. Good though it was to see Banda go (not quite for life, Ngwasi) I was able to summon only one cheer for donor-driven democracy.

After two years we were ready to move on. We wanted to spend time in a developing country that mattered to the rest of the world, somewhere that had more chance of developing on its own terms. Kate ruled out India because she insisted, and would brook no contradiction, that they had plenty of skills there and didn’t need people like us. I wasn’t quite sure who ‘people like us’ were. I favoured Brazil because I like tropical places and I love the sound of Portugese; but a job opening for Kate came up in China, which fitted our criteria and had, besides, long intrigued Kate for its prowess in water control. In 1994 she was duly interviewed and selected to manage Save the Children’s operations in China.

To celebrate the news we went for a meal in Lilongwe’s only Chinese restaurant, which catered mainly to staff from the Taiwanese embassy—for Taiwan was giving Malawi a bit of aid in return for diplomatic recognition—and asked the waitress if she knew anyone who could teach us Chinese. Yes, she said: I can! And for the next two months Chun Ling, a warm and energetic woman in her twenties, became our teacher. She and her husband, Qi Yun, the restaurant’s cook, came from Shanghai and were the only mainlanders in Lilongwe. She was a middle school English teacher and he was a qualified accountant but, as he said, they ‘made more dollar’ this way. They knew no-one apart from the Taiwanese family who employed but otherwise ignored them, and they went nowhere except the restaurant and their barely furnished apartment in Lilongwe’s sparsely populated Area 12, a leafy, ‘modern’ showcase district that was as lifeless as its lack of a real name suggests.

Worried how we would manage to feed ourselves in China, and further alarmed to discover that we were vegetarians, Chun Ling set about drilling us in the names of vegetables and Qi Yun came round to our house (in the only slightly less lifeless Area 3) to show us how to cook them. I took him a couple of times to play snooker at the Lilongwe Golf Club—‘snook’ was one of his few English words and the colonial-legacy enclave of the Golf Club was the only place in town to indulge the passion. We squeezed a few other outings into their breaks between shifts; once to the Chinese Garden in Lilongwe, an eerily empty park of bamboo groves dotted with pagodas built as a gift from ‘the people’ of Taiwan to ‘the people of Malawi.’ The outing was interrupted when our son Enrique, then aged six, fell off his bicycle and cut his chin open: he still has the scar. Later we had occasion to encourage Chun Ling and Qi Yun to seek medical attention too. She had women’s health worries and no-one except Kate to share them with; and shortly before we left he burned away the skin from the underside of his forearm while stir-frying at work. He finished the shift before applying a poultice of herbs bought from medicine men in the Old Town market.

We lost touch soon after leaving Malawi (the photographs we sent seemed not to get through), but I think of them whenever I eat mu’er, the ‘black edible fungus’ that caused us great hilarity when Chun Ling solemnly drilled us. Stumbling through those lists of vegetables seemed a curious introduction to the Chinese universe but turned out to be apt enough, for I have never met a people so ready to talk lengthily about food or, indeed, so inventive in its preparation.

And into Asia

Kate’s new job took us first to Hong Kong which, when I visited in later years, I came to appreciate for its efficiency and to like for its brassy self-confidence and deserving sense of its own uniqueness; but which at first bore the full brunt of our post-Africa culture shock. Its aggressively urban environment and density, the lights never off at night, the sky never dark, the pavements never empty; its relentless forward drive, nearly everything ripped down and renewed after twenty years or so, leaving only token vestiges of history dwarfed by the mighty present; its endless shopping malls and countless escalators where the citizenry instantly froze, seeing no need to continue operating their legs while in machine-driven motion; the hours of accumulated minutes spent waiting for high-rise elevators or standing in them, frozen again, doing one’s polite best to be invisible to fellow passengers; the ubiquitous discounts and bargains and the verbal tic that so many people had of never saying ‘price’ but always ‘market price’ . . . after dull, leafy, never properly urban Lilongwe, where giggling, barefoot children ran after foreigners shouting ‘Give me two tambala!’ (one hundred tambala, cockerels, making one kwacha, dawn, in the local currency); after Africa, where nearly everyone lived from what they could get out of the ground, Hong Kong, which produced almost nothing and traded almost everything, seemed to me the apotheosis of a ‘development’ I could not quite like, the complete divorce of humanity from nature. And yet, after the astonishing achievement of building all this to accommodate six million busy and thriving people on a bare, humid rock, and even as the city fathers kept nibbling away at the sea with land reclamation projects to enrich the public purse, still the call to struggle with nature was answered by men and boys leaning over the sea wall, in the shadow of vast tower blocks, trying to pull out little fish with hand-held lines and hooks.

More striking yet was the Sunday spectacle of thousands of Filipina housemaids gathering in the concrete canyons of Central and Wanchai, spreading plastic sheets on every available inch of public space to celebrate their day off with pavement picnics of chicken and rice, animated by chatter that had to compete with pounding jack-hammers from the latest reclamation projects along the shoreline. Why didn’t they head out to the ‘outlying islands’ or New Territories to find green space and fresh air, trees to sit under, beaches to lie on? Was it to save the fare so that a few extra dollars could be sent home to their families? Or did this odd choice of gathering-place speak to a deeper desire to colonise on this day of liberty the commercial heart of the city that held them captive? It was only years later that I visited Manila and discovered that there, too, people sit around chatting and eating on pavements late into the night, apparently oblivious to the concrete and the traffic around them.

I escaped Hong Kong island as often as I could, taking our two small boys on a sampan ferry that left from Aberdeen harbour, cut across a sea lane ploughed by a continuous line of container ships, and deposited us on the island of Lamma: another rock rising 350 metres out of the ocean with a couple of villages strewn along its shore. No cars or roads, but a concrete path running all round, where at week-ends jolly groups of Hong Kong youngsters would also go on health- and pleasure-seeking jaunts, dressed in the latest mountain bike or hiking gear as if venturing into wilderness rather than along a concrete path. On one of our outings a typhoon was coming in, deterring other trippers, and Jack, then barely four years old and a skinny shrimp, was lifted off his feet by a gust of wind near the summit of Mount Stenhouse. It would only have taken a knot or two more wind speed to have swept him away forever into the South China Sea. That wouldn’t have done much good for Kate’s reputation as a child saver.

Back in the city about a quarter of the population seemed from a distance to be suffering from ear-ache, for we had not yet got used to the tilt of the head as people scurried along talking into cell phones, which to us in 1994 were still exotic. The assistant real estate agent who showed us round several almost identical apartments in the South Horizons complex, which became our home for ten months, made no less than four calls back to the office during the half hour we spent with her, to check again which apartment of which floor of which block was next on the itinerary. This was my first close encounter with the communication technology revolution. Its evident capacity to erode human concentration and memory put me off buying a cell phone for another three years; but I did acquire a laptop in one of the city’s bustling computer emporia and thus became digitally semi-literate. (In Malawi I had worked on an early, ‘portable’ computer that was little more than an electronic typewriter and I delivered my copy by fax or even, sometimes, by dictation over the phone. Indeed, I was once struck by lightning while dictating during a storm, coming round on the floor after being delivered a knock-out blow through the earpiece.) Little did I know it but our encounter with China was to coincide with, and in my case be inseparable from, the mainland’s rapid embrace of new communication technologies, notably the Internet. Although it is still too early properly to assess their transformative impact it was undoubtedly substantial and, I came to feel, despite my Luddite proclivities, liberating in at least some ways. It’s the skills we lose that the breathless enthusiasts too quickly lose sight of.

I worked on older communication skills too in Hong Kong by learning a bit more Mandarin. Returns on investment in this area were slender since the several private schools I attended for short courses were all rather dismal, charging a small fortune to large classes of beginners packed into low-ceilinged classrooms with no natural light and made to chant our lines in chorus. Welcome to Chinese pedagogy. The other chanters were mostly Hong Kong Cantonese speakers preparing to be ‘taken over’ by the mainland in 1997, when Britain’s last colony of substance would revert to Chinese sovereignty. They got the basics a lot quicker than I did.

Meanwhile, I bashed out on my new computer a few columns for the Eastern Express, a short-lived English language rival to the South China Morning Post, whose proprietors, its staff informed me, were marooned in Taiwan, unable to return to Hong Kong because of narcotics trafficking charges against them. The China editor was a bright young Canadian, Bruce Gilley, who went on to become a well-known China pundit with a string of books and assistant professorships to his name. In 1995, while still at the Express, he caused a stir with a story, based entirely on secondary sources, alleging that hospitals in Shenzhen were selling aborted human foetuses as a health food. I, who had never before been east of Zanzibar, did not know what to make of this. For sure, I was expecting cultural differences, and I know that gruesome things happen in the world; but could Chinese people, even just a few of them, really be that different, so casually immune to taboos that otherwise seemed universal? For the allegation concerned not just one sociopathic individual (like, say, the Austrian man who imprisoned and raped his daughters for years); it was an organised trade that was being ‘uncovered’ here. If one had set out to concoct a falsehood that would outrage decent people worldwide, this would be it. Indeed, the story resembled war time propaganda designed to make our enemies seem less human and therefore easier to kill. For that reason alone it should have been supported with the most exacting evidence; but this has never been supplied. Yet several prominent U.S. politicians believed it anyway, demanding immediate action; and the story continued for years to rumble round the American right (especially ‘pro-Life’ circles.) The main lesson for me here was how ready many foreigners were to believe Chinese people capable of unspeakable evil.

I also wrote from Hong Kong for Gemini News Service, a features agency specialising in stories from and about developing countries. This was created by a veteran British newsman, Derek Ingram, who left a top Fleet Street job in 1967 (when the UK press did still operate out of Fleet Street) to set it up and then devoted the next thirty years of his life to keeping it going. His generous and far-sighted vision was to offer an alternative source of international features, especially for English language papers in developing countries, to those supplied by the big wire services based in Europe and the United States (Reuters, AP, AFP et al). Those agencies pay relatively scant attention to ‘remote’ places and countries and generally reflect Western preoccupations and perspectives which are then faithfully relayed by local papers around the developing world. Gemini—way ahead of mainstream Western media whose foreign correspondents, in 1967, were almost exclusively white and predominantly male—mainly used local reporters writing about their own regions. These features were distributed, through the post, to several hundred newspapers worldwide. This was a forward looking and impressive achievement, albeit modest in scale, which deserves recognition. Yet Derek’s name does not come up much on Google and there’s no Wikipedia entry for either Gemini or for him. There is an entry for another man of the same name who, apparently, is ‘the host of the television program “Inside Daytona Cubs Baseball.”’ Can’t wait to catch that one. Wikipedia also currently offers lengthy individual profiles of more than 60 Japanese ‘AV idols’ (porn stars). I find this informational imbalance disturbing in a service that was also undoubtedly inspired by a generous vision; but I don’t know whether the problem is with humanity or just with the Internet.

I didn’t qualify as ‘local’ to anywhere but I had written for Gemini from Central America, where few local journalists were able to write in English, and from Malawi, where English was one of the official national languages but where Banda had so suppressed the development of the scribblers’ trade that the numerous papers which appeared during the ‘democratic transition’ were barely literate. In Hong Kong, Gemini was too small a fish to hold much allure either for the Western journo wannabes who flocked to the city or for Hong Kong Chinese reporters who had a thriving Chinese language media to work in and a mainland audience of 1.2 billion to reach out to. So Gemini had to make do with me.

Taking over China

There were some interesting stories to write, for Hong Kong’s place in global history is itself an extraordinary tale of ceaseless change.

In 1843, two years after Britain seized the island as a prize of the Opium War, it had a population of 595 Europeans, 362 Indians and 22,560 Chinese and was mainly engaged in smuggling opium and salt into China.[1] By 1860, when China ceded the tiny mainland peninsula of Kowloon to Britain, trade included Chinese products, notably tea. Global demand for these had been boosted by hundreds of thousands of Chinese emigrants who had exited through Hong Kong’s port to labour in other European colonies and in North America, creating the basis of a Chinese ‘diaspora’ that is now put at about 34 million people worldwide (although most heavily concentrated in South East Asia.)

The colony’s population had risen to a quarter of a million (roughly 95% Chinese) by 1898, when Britain acquired from the Qing court a 99 year lease on the ‘New Territories,’ a few mountains and bogs adjoining Kowloon. Hong Kong was by then firmly established as an ‘entrepôt’ (intermediary) economy: 55 per cent of China’s imports (which by then included coal, cotton, flour, and kerosene) and 37 per cent of her exports (tea, silk, matting, spices, clothing, silver, furniture, porcelain and lacquer ware) passed through the colony.[1] In addition to trade, the ancillary industries of shipping, insurance and banking were thriving, and significant ship-building, sugar refining and textile industries had developed. Jardine Matheson, the company established by two Scotsmen who had successfully wrested a share in the opium trade from the British East India Company, had already become a large conglomerate with diversified interests, including lending capital to the government of China to finance railway construction. Also lending to the Chinese state was the Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation (now abbreviated, per the 21st century fashion, to HSBC.) And Chinese ‘coolies’ were already being deployed on ‘cut and fill’ operations: hacking rock from Hong Kong island’s ‘Peak’ and throwing it into Victoria Harbour to reclaim from the sea more space for commercial development in the central business district. Reclamation has continued until this day. From the 1950s, the city expanded not only seawards but also in the only other direction possible: upwards, creating the ‘Manhattanised’ skyline of today.

In the mid-20th century China’s civil war and revolution brought more than a million refugees into the tiny territory, which itself had endured the rigours of Japanese occupation during World War II. The influx of immigrants threatened social chaos but also supplied the labour and the fleeing capital to launch Hong Kong into a manufacturing era, producing textiles, plastics and electronics for the world. ‘Made in Hong Kong’ was almost as much a part of my childhood in the 1960s as ‘Made in China’ is for Western children now. (Those, that is, who are literate and curious enough to study the bottom of their toys.)

Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 accession to power on the mainland was to see Hong Kong re-create itself once again. By the end of the 20th century, almost half of all ‘foreign’ investment in Deng’s reform-era China had come from Hong Kong as, starting in the 1980s, industrialists transferred their manufacturing operations across the border to take advantage of the cheap labour and tax breaks offered by the ‘Special Economic Zone’ that Deng created in neighbouring Shenzhen. As the Chinese economy took off, Hong Kong investors (and diaspora Chinese who had settled further afield) fanned out across the mainland, reviving old family and social connections and looking for business opportunities, notably in property development. At the same time Hong Kong once again became a major ‘shop front’ for all that was made in China, and a stepping stone for others (including Taiwanese) who wanted to invest there or to compete for a slice of the China market.

Derek Ingram (who, despite his advancing years, could not refrain from globetrotting and visited Hong Kong twice during our ten-month sojourn)
was convinced that the 1997 re-unification with China (when the lease on the New Territories expired) would prove ‘less a case of communist China taking over capitalist Hong Kong than of Hong Kong taking over the mainland.’ That was vintage Derek: a bit tabloid but very far from stupid.

Certainly, Hong Kong owed its continued prosperity to its ability to adapt and accommodate itself to what was happening elsewhere and, especially, across the Chinese border. Ongoing adaptations during our stay included huge investment in public works: the massive new airport, built on 1,248 hectares of land reclaimed from the sea, with associated road and rail links, tunnels and bridges; a new container terminal; the Hong Kong Convention Centre; the state of the art Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, completed in 1992. I read all this as a bid to maintain Hong Kong’s post-handover importance as a financial, communications and knowledge hub, in the hope that Beijing would recognise it as too precious an asset to interfere with.

At the same time Martin Lee Chu-Ming, a Hong Kong barrister, had just founded the Hong Kong Democratic Party to press for the full democracy the British had never troubled to institute; or, at least, to protect existing civic freedoms and ‘rule of law.’ The Party provided a counterweight to the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, a ‘pro-Beijing’ grouping that seemed ready to pledge allegiance to whoever happened to be in charge.

But ten months was far too short a time to get any real feel for Hong Kong politics. In the main I found the professionals, administrators and intellectuals I met to be polished, gracious people, groomed in British manners that most Brits had long relinquished, yet rather closed and very guarded with information and opinion: ‘Politic, cautious, and meticulous;/Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.’ I was, for example, surprised (and irritated) to find nearly every interview request met with a demand for a faxed list of questions. Yet it would be unreasonable to expect much openness from a people forged between the rock of British colonial rule and the hard place of China, from people who came to escape the poverty and trouble of their homeland but were, until 1897, required to observe a 9 p.m. curfew and, for many decades more, kept in almost complete social segregation from the European elite: until, indeed, the economic elite had itself become predominantly Chinese. Democratic champion, Martin Lee, himself exemplified the Hong Kong Chinese conundrum. The son of a General in Chang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang (Nationalist) army, he was born in 1938 while his mother was staying with relatives in Hong Kong. ‘My father said: “Don’t register the birth because I don’t want him to be British,”’ Lee told me; but when the Communists crossed the Yangtze river a decade later in the closing stages of the civil war, the Lee family ‘took the last flight out of Guangzhou’ and settled in Hong Kong [2]. It is not hard to see how this sense of being squeezed between Britain and China would give rise to a politics that was subterranean and hard headed; very much connected, for most people, with calculations of personal and community interest rather than ideology. But personal interests were hard to calculate in 1994. The predominant atmosphere, I felt, was one of cautious acceptance of the inevitable; for people on the whole could see that their economic future was already inextricably hitched to China. Still, property prices were already beginning to rise in Toronto and Vancouver as those who could afford to do so bought themselves bolt holes just in case things went wrong. Lee told me of friends who were ‘buying Dominican passports for USD 90,000 while they apply for Canadian ones.’

If the politics were opaque, clear enough was the importance of Hong Kong (and the wider diaspora) in linking China not only economically but also socially and culturally to the world beyond. This became apparent to me during forays into colony’s extensive and unique non profit sector, which began to develop as early as the 1860s when Chinese merchants started to create education and health facilities for their own community. Early initiatives included the Tung Wah hospital and Po Leung Kuk, the latter being devoted to prevention of child trafficking.[3] Over the following 130 years, as successive waves of immigrants from the mainland swelled the population, the colonial authorities encouraged private charity as a cheaper and more administratively streamlined way of meeting social needs than creating extensive, government-run services. Land titles on what was to become prime real estate were given to the many churches that various missionary societies had established, on the understanding that they provide social as well as prayer services. (Some of this land ended up being used for sideline businesses. The YMCA ran two, upmarket hotels overlooking Victoria harbour while the YWCA, Salvation Army and Caritas each had less well-appointed but still profitable hotels in Kowloon. During later visits I used to stay at the Salvation Army’s Booth Lodge, where I never quite plucked up the courage to suggest to the management that they embellish the complimentary soap with the legend Wash Your Sins Away!)

During the influx of refugees from the mainland in the 1950s and 60s, when the authorities were fully occupied with a crash programme to build public housing for the newcomers, secular British charities were invited to come in and set up shop. By the mid 1990s these organisations, like the churches, had become almost entirely localised, staffed and run by Hong Kong Chinese. Groups such as the Hong Kong Association of Boys and Girls Clubs, which sounded as if they were all about promoting healthy sports and camp fire fun, were in fact large agencies employing hundreds of youth and community workers in school and outreach programmes in ‘new town’ high-rise public housing estates that, in Britain, would have been covered in graffiti and urine. The Hong Kong estates somehow managed to escape that fate but still had their share of poverty, crime, drug addiction, unwanted pregnancy . . . plenty to keep the social workers busy. The non-profit reach also extended to numerous hospitals, kindergartens, retirement homes, residential, day care and rehabilitation centres for people with various special needs, counselling service, refuges and shelters, de-tox programmes, immigrant reception programmes . . . and quite a bit of camp-fire fun for Hong Kong youth too.

Nearly all of these services were mainly funded by the Hong Kong government, which typically made annual subventions covering 80-90% of the operating costs of service provider agencies. This budgetary burden was reduced by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club which, in a stroke of administrative genius, had in 1973 been given a monopoly of betting on the old colonial sport of horse racing. This inspired stone killed several birds at once. It made it easier to reign in criminal triads who found gambling rings natural terrain for illegal profit; it yielded, by the mid 1990s, some USD 1.2 billion per year in tax revenue on the USD 9 billion placed annually in bets (including bets placed by mainland syndicates); and, after winnings were paid out and capital reinvested to maintain and extend the Club’s sumptuous facilities at the Happy Valley and Shatin racecourses, the Club was left with some USD 800 million each year to give away to non-profit causes.[4] Beneficiaries included not just social service providers but also the arts, higher education (with, for example, a USD 250 million contribution to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) and recreation. Ocean Park—a lo-brow funfair and theme park (leaping Orcas etc) overlooking the South China Sea, and an essential stop on the itinerary of tour groups from the mainland—was another recipient of Jockey Club largesse. Finally, the betting monopoly consolidated the sport’s position as a passion that both united and differentiated the populace. At the Shatin racecourse a series of crowd-control railings funnelled thousands of ordinary punters, clutching their racing papers and hot tips, from the Mass Transit Railway station to the stands; in the process you had to file past the main clubhouse door where Rolls Royces swept up to disgorge the diamond spangled elite.

Altogether, then, Hong Kong’s system of social service delivery was quite different from the welfare state that the ‘home government’ of the United Kingdom had developed over the same period. Although the colonial government did run hospitals, social services and, especially, schools, as well as providing income support to the most needy, it was much more reliant than the UK government on a non-profit market of service providers; and private philanthropy made a substantial, cost-sharing contribution. This was not only through the passive ‘philanthropy’ that the Jockey Club tapped. A Community Chest, which gleaned handsome donations from the business elite, also supported a wide range of service providers; Lions and Rotary Clubs were active too; and many of the wealthiest entrepreneurs competed in personal philanthropy as much as in business (typically making donations personally, through personal contacts, in a none too transparent or ‘professional’ way.[5]) Many entrepreneurs, moreover, were beginning to make donations in China—generally, to Chinese government agencies—where their business interests were developing apace.

There was much in this service delivery system for mainland social policy makers to mull over as China moved away from the ‘iron rice bowl’ of basic, cradle-to-grave provision (for, at least, urban populations) through state and state-owned enterprise channels. Not that there was in China a clearly legible policy making process or forward direction in these fields; but, by the turn of the new century, Hong Kong’s system was figuring in debates among some academics and government officials and was echoed in some local experimentation—especially just over the border in Cantonese speaking Guangdong Province and in Hong Kong’s old rival as a centre of trade, finance and horse racing: metropolitan Shanghai. As early as the mid-1990s the government of Shanghai’s Pudong New Area had created a Public Welfare Foundation to help develop social services for this vast new conurbation that had been raised on paddy fields within a few short years, and it had provided land and a building grant to the Shanghai YMCA (which maintained close contacts with the Hong Kong and Canadian branches of the ‘Y’) to create a residential home for senior citizens. By the end of 2006, the local government was providing premises for six community centres operated by the YMCA and beginning to contract out services to several other groups besides.[6]

At the same time, in terms of actual, ‘coal face’ practice—the kind of social services provided and the way in which they were offered—Hong Kong had absorbed and yet localised Western approaches to social, youth and community work, adapting them to Hong Kong’s context and culture. It was now poised to share these modified approaches with a Chinese mainland that had for decades been cut off from international experience.

For many of the hundreds of non-profit organisations listed in the Hong Kong Council for Social Services directory had at least some contact and exchange with government and emerging non-government agencies on the mainland. Some ran China ‘projects’ (which were usually modest in scope, not least because of the lack of a funding mechanism, since their Hong Kong government funding had to be spent on Hong Kong services.) Examples included the Neighbourhood Advice-Action Council, which worked with neighbourhood committees in Guangzhou to create community support services for elderly people; and the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation (whose president, Sir Harry Fang Sin-yang, was the son of another Kuomintang general), which worked with Tongji Medical University in Wuhan to create courses in applied rehabilitation for medical professionals.

Other Hong Kong groups, including churches, provided advice and small funding to nascent non-government service providers in China. One such was the Guangzhou Agape (‘Love’) Social Services Centre which began, in 1989, by establishing a kindergarten that accepted Hepatitis B positive children, who were at that time barred from state kindergartens.[7] Another was Guangzhou Zhiling, established in 1985 by the feisty Ms. Meng Weina, to develop services for youngsters with serious learning difficulties.

Various Hong Kong church groups supported the Nanjing-based Amity Foundation—a service organisation created by Chinese Protestants in 1985 and a major pioneer of China’s post-Maoist non-profit sector—either simply by funding projects or by supplying staff to advise and train Chinese counterparts. The Foundation maintained a coordination and fundraising office in Hong Kong, led by the Revd. Dr. Philip Wickeri, who was the first (and still, as far as I am aware, the only) U.S. citizen to have studied and been ordained in Communist-era China (at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.) As well as fundraising for the Foundation and coordinating its throughput of foreign visitors, Philip was writing a biography of Ting Kuang-hsun, the Chinese Anglican Bishop, theologian, head of the Nanjing Seminary and President of the Amity Foundation. The Bishop had struggled to keep the church alive during the Maoist years yet was perceived by some overseas Christians and human rights activists as a stooge of the Communist regime because of his leadership of the ‘official’ Patriotic Three-Self Movement and the China Christian Council.[8] Funny how almost anyone who tries to work constructively with the Chinese authorities eventually attracts the ‘stooge’ tag. I never met Bishop Ting but Philip was nobody’s stooge. Theologically ecumenical (that is, without religious tribalism), he was firmly internationalist and passionately committed to social justice in the various kingdoms of earth; which I guess makes him a bit ‘low’ in church terms, but a fine example nonetheless of the human thread weaving China, Hong Kong and the rest of the world closer together. Now, appropriately enough, he teaches courses on globalisation at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Very many more Hong Kong service organisations participated in exchanges of various kinds, sending representatives to meet mainland counterparts, accepting Chinese care staff on attachment training, or receiving the numerous mainland Chinese delegations that came on study-cum-sightseeing and shopping trips. Even the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation of Offenders received delegations of Chinese prison governors (nominally as members of a Prison Governors Association—wearing an ‘NGO’ hat to cover Beijing’s embarrassment at seeming to learn from ‘capitalist’ places) on study tours to inspect Hong Kong’s penitentiary system.

The ideas entrepôt

At the same time, a small but growing number of organisations based in Hong Kong were largely devoted to running relief and development projects in China. The Hong Kong Red Cross played a prominent role in relief efforts after the natural disasters from which China has always suffered copiously (although some of them no longer seemed to stem from ‘natural’ causes). The generosity with which Hong Kong people responded to emergency fundraising appeals, easily outstripping Western countries in per capita donations to charity, also paved the way for local chapters of other global NGO brands, such as World Vision and Oxfam, which typically used relief operations as an entry point for establishing longer term development projects in China’s rural areas. Oxfam Hong Kong was especially interesting in several respects.

The Oxfam brand shares a creation history with Save the Children, for both organisations were started by British citizens determined to mitigate the effects of war and its aftermath in Europe, and in open opposition to the policies of their own government. In 1919, the sisters Dorothy and Eglantyne Jebb set up a Fight the Famine Council to protest against the vindictive Allied economic blockade of defeated Germany, which was causing widespread hunger there. These were not timid women. During the war, Dorothy had published a newsletter contradicting Allied propaganda about conditions in Germany and during the subsequent anti-blockade campaign Eglantyne was arrested on a public order offence for distributing pamphlets entitled ‘A Starving Baby’ in central London. The Council established a Save the Children Fund to collect money for relief supplies, which it was soon also shipping to other countries recovering from the Great War. Eglantyne drafted a ‘Charter of the Rights of the Child’ that was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924 and served as the basis for the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Oxfam was born in 1942 in similar spirit and circumstances, as the Oxford branch of a national Famine Relief Committee. This lobbied the Allies to allow relief supplies through their blockade of Nazi-occupied Greece to reach the starving civilian population there. Leading lights in this effort included the Quaker activist, Edith Pye, who had earlier been involved in relief efforts during World War I and the Spanish Civil War, and Gilbert Murray, a distinguished Oxford don specialising in Ancient Greece, and a key member of the internationalist League of Nations Society. Both Save the Children and Oxfam went on to establish affiliates in other industrialised countries, to extend their relief efforts well beyond Europe’s borders (Save the Children even sent supplies for flood victims in China in the 1920s) and, in time, to venture into longer term development projects.

Oxfam Hong Kong was started in the 1980s by a group of young British expatriates as a fundraising group to support Oxfam Great Britain. This thrived to the extent that by the early 1990s the group became an ‘operational’ member of the international Oxfam family, implementing rural projects in Southwest China. By the turn of the century it had 60,000 regular donors in Hong Kong and held an annual sponsored walk across the barren peaks of the New Territories, attracting so many participants that the event soon became an essential entry in the social calendar of local celebrities and politicians. Hong Kong’s receptivity to the new organisation raised the tantalising possibility that a politically liberal, middle class philanthropy might one day develop in mainland China. Could there one day even be an Oxfam China taking its place alongside the thirteen other Oxfams in the Oxfam International federation? [9]

Yet in spending the money it raised Oxfam Hong Kong had the extremely tough job, especially for a young organisation without a pool of seasoned ‘development workers,’ of deciding how to do ‘pro-poor’ development and ‘advocacy’ work in and with respect to China. For, in common with several other international development NGOs, the Oxfam family as a whole was no longer much interested in the charitable service provision or skills transfer that was the staple of many Hong Kong non profit organisations. The 1970s platitude ‘Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you’ll feed him for life’ had unravelled into all sorts of complications. For example, it might be a woman doing the fishing, and she might already know perfectly well how to fish but an industrial fishing fleet from another country had just mined her patch of ocean, or a local baron had just thrown her off her beach to turn it into a tourist resort, or her government was so crippled with debt that it could not build roads to get her fish to urban markets or offer even minimal health care for her or schooling for her children; or all of these put together. So by the 1990s the development NGO talk had turned more to working globally for ‘a more just international order’ while, locally (in ‘the South’) doing something on the lines of ‘empowering and building the capacity of communities to pursue and secure rights to sustainable livelihoods.’ Which sounds great in mission statements—well, not that great, but a whole generation of NGO communications people thought it did—but is a tall order in a place like China.

To make matters worse Oxfam, like various other development NGO families with siblings in various countries (Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, CARE, Plan, ActionAid, etc) was at this time—and logically enough—struggling to rationalise and harmonise their global operations. Trying, that is, to develop a global corporate approach (and global branding) and to progress beyond the absurdity of having, in places such as Vietnam, half a dozen Oxfams from different countries running separate (and sometimes not obviously complementary) programmes. All of the NGOs concerned found this a difficult process; several PhDs could be written on the subject, although I am not aware of a good one yet. In Oxfam’s case, the young Oxfam Hong Kong was given a kind of sovereignty over China. The other Oxfams could fund, comment, advise on and criticise ‘the China programme’ but that programme would be run by Oxfam Hong Kong (which, in turn, contributed funds for the work of other Oxfams in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in Asia, and organised lobbying, advocacy and ‘development education’ activities in Hong Kong and China, based on globally agreed campaign themes: Third World debt, land mines, etc.) In practice this put the young Oxfam Hong Kong in a horribly difficult position. They were expected to do exciting, progressive work in a horribly difficult country under the watchful gaze of older brothers and sisters, some of whom wanted a more direct piece of the action: for almost all major international development NGOs felt that if they had anything to contribute to the world they must have—and demonstrate that they had—something to contribute to China. The relationships were therefore difficult, and sometimes fractious. Oxfam Hong Kong people typically assumed a defensive and proprietorial attitude, feeling that because of proximity and ‘common culture’ they had unique insight into China, which folk from further afield just didn’t understand; yet also feeling that it was essential to proceed with caution. Some of their Oxfam siblings felt the Hong Kong crew were amateurish and unadventurous.

Most of these older siblings were more or less frankly anti-capitalist or, at least, keenly critical of unregulated markets, free trade and what was coming to be called ‘globalisation.’ This position was a hard sell in Hong Kong, which owed its existence to trade, was hailed by economic neo-liberalism’s formeost ideologue, Milton Friedman, as the ‘most free market economy in the world,’ and was delivering one of the highest standards of living in the world to most (although not all) of its citizens. And anti-capitalism was a position from which Oxfam Hong Kong’s autodidact Executive Director, John Sayer, was careful to distance himself when I first met him. An erstwhile hill farmer in Wales who, after a spell in India, had spent many years in Hong Kong, he made a point of insisting that when in 1956 Nikita Kruschev bragged how the Soviet Union would ‘bury’ the capitalist West the Cold Warrior did not mean by force of arms or moral example: he meant that socialism offered a superior economic system. And what a lot of cobblers that turned out to be. John’s point, if I got it, was that intuitive egalitarians, for all their desire to find a more humane alternative to capitalism, had to face up to the paradigms lost in the Cold War. He also argued that economic growth in the ‘Asian tiger’ economies was not necessarily all that inequitable, or needn’t be; and that there is nothing intrinsically morally dubious about helping poor people, notably farmers, to make a profit. These weren’t exactly heresies in ‘progressive’ development NGO thinking at the time; but they nearly were. Yet John, unlike Nikita Kruschev, seems to have had the tide of history on his side—when it came to Oxfam worldviews at any rate. Twenty years ago Oxfam Great Britain was holding up Sandinista Nicaragua as a development exemplar; now it is taking more interest in Taiwan and South Korea.[10]

This is by no means to suggest that Oxfam Hong Kong was staffed by closet neo-liberals; for it certainly did its best to assist and, yes, ‘empower’ or at least give ‘voice’ to ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘marginalised’ groups in China: the rural poor, especially rural women, the new migrant worker proletariat, etc. (It also worked to highlight problems of poverty and inequality in Hong Kong’s own population, and to provide legal and social support services to migrant ‘guest workers’ there.) Nor, I should make clear, was this for long an expatriate-dominated venture: by the mid 90s, localisation was well advanced, as the organisation developed a cadre of staff (and board members) who were literate in the development NGO discourse; although one of John Sayer’s remaining headaches was finding someone, ideally ‘local,’ to replace him. (A problem I was in due course to experience for myself.) It is also the case that Hong Kong already had its own corps of home-grown social activists: for example, those in the labour movement who were interested in what was happening to workers across the China border, wondering how best to identify and engage with counterparts there, and connecting with the likes of Han Dongfang, the mainland’s exiled labour activist who ran a China Labour Bulletin out of Hong Kong and, later, a phone-in radio programme that mainland workers called to discuss disputes they were engaged in. Such disputes were of increasing interest to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee and the Asia Monitor Resource Centre. The latter, headed by the tireless Apo Leung, was especially prominent in gathering and disseminating information on the political economy and working conditions of China’s Special Economic Zones. My impression was that these Hong Kong labour activists suffered, understandably, a quite acute form of ‘twixt rock and hard place’ syndrome—dismayed both by capitalism and by communism but most dismayed of all by the emerging alliance, on the mainland, between them. Yet rather than giving away to despair they did their best to carry on speaking out for the workers and were of real importance in connecting with and informing groups like the US-based Sweatshop Watch and the Europe-based Clean Clothes Campaign that had significant capacity to impact on global public opinion and, therefore, Western corporations, if not the government of China. Finally, there was also a nascent environmentalist community in Hong Kong, although this seemed to me still remarkably feeble at the time, given that (or perhaps because?) the territory had one of the most intensively manipulated environments in the world; yet Greenpeace Hong Kong would in time grow to become a significant force in China’s environmentalist community.

But the point I wanted to make here is that in my view East Asia challenged and over time changed the way that Oxfam as a whole thinks about development; just as, from my arrival in Hong Kong, it began to change the way that I thought. For Oxfam’s progression from its original relief efforts in Europe was at first largely a move into former colonies that gained independence after World War II—for example, Oxfam Belgium was largely preoccupied with work in the former Belgian Congo—although several sections were later also drawn to Latin America by that continent’s fertile social movements which seemed to offer good prospects of community ‘empowerment.’ This led fairly naturally to an analysis of ‘underdevelopment’ and ‘the root causes of poverty’ based largely on a critique of neo-colonialism. On this analysis (which was very far from stupid), Third World countries were trapped ‘structurally’ on the lower rungs of a global economy as providers of agricultural and mineral commodities. That role provided sufficient local pickings to sustain small local elites but impeded diversification and broader wealth creation because lucrative value-adding through manufacture was effectively reserved for the former colonial and new, neo-colonial powers (ie, the United States). Thus, in the assessment of Maggie Black, who wrote a history of Oxfam to mark its 50th anniverary in 1992, ‘The central idea since the 1960s has been the reinterpretation of ‘the white man’s burden’ in the post-colonial era.’[11] Oxfam’s encounter with East and South East Asia came relatively late—not least because so much of the region was for so long closed to foreigners—and revealed places that, despite an unfair world order and despite the misfortunes of their recent past, were evidently developing apace (even if much of the development was not quite to the taste of people like me.) And this was certainly worth thinking about.

Oxfam Hong Kong, through its very existence and through the input of its Hong Kong staff, played a significant part in this process of reflection; and this gives a new twist to the idea of Hong Kong as a social entrepôt. For here we see it serving not just as a bridgehead for the export of Western notions—Christianity in the 19th to mid 20th centuries; secular concepts of democracy and human rights thereafter, and free trade all along—but more as a locus for a multi-directional exchange of discourse and ideas. That, I think, is a fine thing in principle and enormously important in practice when engaging with China, so much of which remains averse to the idea of ‘Westernisation’ but not necessarily to that of ‘internationalisation.’ Exchange is more fruitful—indeed it is only properly speaking ‘exchange’—when the exchanging parties accept that they not only have things to teach but also things to learn from each other.

So that was my time in Hong Kong. Becoming digitally semi-literate. Meeting interesting people and not influencing them very much. Reconstructing my own worldview (such a fashionable word ‘reconstructing’ was in the mid 90s, several years before ‘narrative’ became all the rage) in the light of so much concrete, so much avid consumption, energy, opportunism and forward momentum. And overcoming vertigo—only temporarily, alas—by marching my little boys across the remotest hilltops I could find and by taking them up and down ‘The Scary Lift,’ a glass elevator that glided sixty floors up the outside of the otherwise rather dismal Hopewell Centre, unfolding beneath one’s feet giddying panoramas of the city and seascape; and then calling in at the Harry Ramsden chip shop at the bottom.

Kate, meanwhile, was much busier.

From refugees to foundlings

Her first task was to close down Save the Children’s programme in Hong Kong, which at that time employed 70 staff, and instead to establish a representative office in mainland China to expand the organisation’s activities there.

Save the Children had started working in Hong Kong in the 1960s, when it was invited by the colonial government to create a foster care system, but its remaining operations were mainly based in Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugee camps, located in the New Territories and encircled by high fences, where it ran ‘well baby clinics’ and kindergartens—in crudely adapted shipping containers—for infants and toddlers who had been born in captivity. By the early 1990s the refugees were beginning to trickle back to Vietnam under the auspices of a UN High Commission for Refugees repatriation programme. Save the Children supported this process with programmes to inform the refugees about the changing conditions in their homeland, put them back in touch with family there, etc. Now it wanted to shift its resources to the returnees in Vietnam and also to explore possibilities in China: in short, to pull out of a closing market and enter an emerging one. Kate was the hatchet woman, deal-broker and entrepreneur who a private corporation would have paid a small fortune for performing a similar service. Save the Children, alas for our old age security, paid less well.

Like Oxfam, Save the Children had been re-thinking its role, and it was now retreating from ‘service provision’ in all except emergency and disaster response situations, in favour of ‘child rights programming’ and ‘advocacy.’ Foreign funded services, the reasoning went, were invariably limited in their reach by modest budgets and, besides, generally unsustainable: they risked creating dependency on external support and, in the worst cases, discouraged or undermined local efforts in much the same way that dumping food aid on a poor country undermines local agriculture. Of course developing countries often urgently need short-term external assistance for investment in new infrastructure or services but funding of that sort should be left to government donor agencies and development banks. Save the Children should instead use its comparatively tiny resources for working with ‘local partners’ to identify and highlight problems from a ‘child rights perspective’ and then help to ‘facilitate’ locally appropriate and locally sustainable solutions. Again, that sounds great but is very hard to do. Yet (as John Sayer remarked to Kate when they first met) at least she had a specific remit for children rather than being expected to set the whole world to rights.

The upshot was that Kate had to pass the refugee camp projects, along with Hong Kong nurses and kindergarten teachers employed in them, to the management of Hong Kong non profit organisations that were less sceptical about service provision, while at the same time negotiating entry into the mainland. This took her ten months. It was only after arriving in Hong Kong that she discovered Save the Children had been trying to relocate to China for several years.

During those years they had been carrying out a patchwork of projects on the mainland, usually with international advisers attached but managed from the office in Hong Kong. This work had included some false starts in completely the wrong direction. Notably, in Yunnan Province (in southwest China, with a population of some 42 million) Save the Children had contributed funds to build a ‘village doctor training centre’ which, it transpired, had never been used to train anybody [12], and to build a power line connecting a few remote villages to the national grid. Wonderful for the villagers, no doubt, but hardly ‘strategic rights programming.’ Another embarrassment in the portfolio was a USD 20,000 grant to the government-run ‘Foundation for Underdeveloped Regions of China’ (yielding the unfortunate English acronym, FURC) to fund a study of street children in several provinces. The Foundation claimed to have completed its study satisfactorily but refused to divulge the results because, it said, they were too ‘sensitive.’ Well FURC you then; there was no further cooperation with them.

More usefully, in the Tibet Autonomous Region (three million people) they were building rural water supplies and funding in-service training for rural primary school teachers. This was work that Kate continued to build on and expand over the next twelve years.

In eastern China’s Anhui Province (60 million people) a disability adviser, Janet Holdsworth, had spent several years working with a few city kindergartens, training teachers to integrate children with (mild) learning disabilities who were previously excluded. This went well: the Provincial Education Commission liked the project so much that they extended the practice themselves, with a little continuing consultancy back-up from Save the Children, to around one hundred kindergartens across the province (picking up in the process a national award from the China Disabled Person’s Federation.) Encouraged by that success, Save the Children was now embarking on a new project in Anhui to ‘de-institutionalise’ care in one of China’s 200 or so state-run Child Welfare Institutes. These are often called ‘orphanages’ but nearly all the children in them were not orphans but foundlings—the overwhelming majority of them girls and around three quarters having some form of congenital disability, ranging from easily operable conditions such as club foot, cleft lip or palate to complex disorders like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome—who had been abandoned by their parents.

Infant abandonment occurs in many poor countries but in China it was, notoriously, exacerbated by birth control policies. In China’s rural society women move in with their husband’s families upon marriage and are under intense pressure to bear a son to continue the family line. In recognition of this, rural couples are allowed to ‘try again’ if their first child is a girl (the so-called ‘one child policy’ was only ever applied strictly in cities); but in strongly traditional families a second daughter, especially if she is disabled, can spell catastrophe for the mother. Matters were not helped by that fact that Family Planning propaganda had a distinctly eugenic flavour. Messages such as ‘quality not quantity’ were daubed on the walls of every village in the land and drummed home through radio, television, newspapers and loudspeaker vans that crawled through rural markets berating the peasants. This drive for smaller, better fed and better educated families was, although highly coercive, in itself understandable; yet it implicitly encouraged women to bear ‘perfect’ children and raised the stakes against those born with ‘imperfections’ (maobing.)

Although there was little reliable data congenital disability appeared to be fairly common, especially in the poorer areas where antenatal screening was negligible and where women’s nutrition was often inadequate. Iodine deficiency disorders, for example, were widespread in many provinces and pregnant women suffering from these had a high chance of bearing intellectually impaired children (at least until an apparently highly successful World Bank and UN supported salt iodisation programme finally began in 1993; this simple and essentially technocratic intervention—the kind of assistance the Chinese authorities cope with very well—has probably already prevented tens of thousands of ‘low quality’ births.[13])

Life for a disabled rural child was generally hard and narrow. Cities offered some (fee-paying) places in ‘deaf, dumb and blind’ schools and physically disabled children were (usually) permitted to attend regular schools if they could make the journey; but the countryside offered no special facilities and most disabled children stayed at home all day. For the family this meant loss of future earnings potential and, because disability made offspring less marriageable, an extra mouth to feed into the parents’ old age. Finally, disability of all kinds was widely regarded as bringing shame on families, a blot on the blood-line that could itself affect the marriage prospects of siblings. All of this made abandoning a disabled girl, in the hope of later bearing a healthy son, not so unthinkable; and many families may well have taken this step honestly believing that the state could offer the child no worse a life than she was likely to have mired in poverty at home.

A less commonly remarked factor in child abandonment was that the State Family Planning system ‘served’ only married couples, making no effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies outside of marriage. For, despite a strongly resurgent commercial sex trade, public morality was in many ways still broadly similar to that in the English speaking world of the early to mid 20th century, where offering contraceptive advice to unmarried youth would be seen as encouraging promiscuity, undermining the family and the moral foundations of society. Sex education in schools was negligible. At best, middle-school children were referred to a section on reproduction in biology textbooks; and very few parents discussed sex with their children. The working assumption was that sex occurred only within marriage; and when a couple become engaged (which in some cases still required the approval of work unit or village authorities) the state’s Family Planning officials would tell them what they needed to know. Nor was there any way for unmarried youngsters to access contraception. Some pharmacies, especially in the vicinity of red light areas, had begun to sell condoms but these were of dubious quality and came in packs curiously embellished with Playboy style photographs of white women, suggesting that the condoms were exotic sex aids. Besides, possession of a condom could be taken as evidence of depravity. College students were expressly prohibited from having sexual relationships, on fear of expulsion, and a woman with a condom in her bag might be arrested as a commercial sex worker and sent, entirely at the discretion of the police, for 3-6 months of ‘re-education.’ Nevertheless, there was already overwhelming evidence that many young people were sexually active well before marriage; and not just college students. The tens of millions of single women who left their villages to work as factory hands, housemaids, waitresses etc seldom had extensive social lives but, for those who managed to find time and opportunity, sexual encounters were full of risk and there was no family planning provision for them either. The failure of state provision to recognise and respond appropriately to changing social reality, even in the priority area of population control, thus contributed directly to a surge in unwanted pregnancies and—although hospitals would gladly perform abortions for a fee—undoubtedly also contributed to child abandonment. (It was not until 2006, 85 years after Marie Stopes opened a clinic in London offering free family planning services, that the organisation named after her was able to open, in the city of Qingdao, China’s first clinic offering contraception advice and safe abortions to unmarried women.)

Save the Children’s ‘de-insitutionalisation’ programme in Anhui began with posting a British social worker, just after we arrived in Hong Kong, in a Child Welfare Institute in Guangde County, seven hours drive from the provincial capital. Kath Brookfield, a blunt, middle-aged Yorkshirewoman, had a tough time there, living in complete isolation and able to communicate directly only with her assigned interpreter. Moreover, the local officials and Institute director were determined to see all the project funds (which came from the European Commission) spent on bricks and mortar and seemed incapable of conceiving progress in any terms other than making the Institute buildings bigger, newer and shinier. A compromise was reached. The infrastructure was rebuilt but divided into family sized apartments where children could live in ‘small group homes’ with full-time ‘house parents’ instead of being accommodated in day rooms and dormitories overseen by shifting duty staff. The Institute was also eventually persuaded to rent apartments in the county town of Guangde where children could live with house parents in a fair approximation to normal family life in the community.

To achieve this required extensive training, over several years, of care staff and managers. This was provided on a daily basis by Kath Brookfield, supplemented by a team of Scottish residential social workers who visited several times. Forward momentum came from the demonstrable returns on improvements that were simple enough in theory but hard to achieve in practice, and that made a poorly paid job more rewarding as the children in care responded. For example, care assistants were often reluctant to pick up the infants in their charge or to touch them more than was absolutely necessary—in part, it seemed, out of a superstitious belief in the contagion of disability and distress. Yet it is also important, although uncomfortable, to point out that abandoned, disabled children are seldom cute and cuddly and, where motivation is low and systems are poorly designed, staff can become caught in a downward spiral of neglect as unloved and untouched children become less lovable. The good news is that this process can be reversed: children who are better cared for become easier to care for.

The Institute also had to be persuaded to change rules and practices that would have made the whole plan unworkable. Notably, the young women employed as care assistants had previously been obliged to leave the job if they got married; it took a long time to convince the Anhui authorities that married couples were by far the best equipped to provide long-term family care. The prior assumption seemed to be that once a woman had a family of her own neither she nor her husband would be interested in caring for other children and would inevitably discriminate against them. Kath Brookfield also reported that officials had been heavily influenced in this policy by another international organisation, SOS Kinderdorf International, which had definitely not moved beyond service provision. Established in Austria in 1949, this builds well-equipped ‘children’s villages’ around the world and had, as early as 1987, established two in China. (It has subsequently added seven more.) This kind of ‘cooperation’ was immensely attractive to Civil Affairs officials, whose budgetary burden it reduced considerably, and who were doubtless impressed by the shininess of the buildings. According to Kath, SOS Kinderdorf’s policy was only to employ single women and Guangde officials, who had visited their facilities, followed suit.

An opportunity to extend the small group home approach arose after the exceptionally heavy rains of 1998 when Kate obtained ‘emergency relief’ funds from the European Commission Humanitarian Office to ‘rehabilitate’ flood-damaged Welfare Institutes in four other provinces. Her staff worked with those Institutes to introduce the small group home concept alongside the new bricks and mortar. Eventually, in 2004, the national Ministry of Civil Affairs endorsed the small group home approach as a ‘national model,’ recommending its uptake across the country.

This was the dream that drove a great deal of internationally funded development cooperation with China at that time: invest a couple of hundred thousand dollars (or, for a more lavishly endowed government development agency, a couple of million) in a ‘pilot’ or ‘demonstration’ project that the Chinese authorities would then ‘replicate’ and ‘scale up,’ first across a county or city, then across a province, and eventually nationwide, using their own resources. In practice, as later pages will show, it very rarely happened like that. The ‘Guangde model’ itself got off to an unpromising start because imaginative and adventurous ‘local partners’ are almost always indispensable to any successful ‘cooperation’ but, in Anhui, the Civil Affairs authorities (unlike their counterparts in the Education Commission) were highly cautious and reluctant to innovate.

That handicap was only overcome through years of patient effort and Kate’s absolute commitment, rather than relying entirely on foreign experts, to developing Chinese staff who got the point of what Save the Children stood and worked for, who had the confidence and imagination to see how it could be adapted—without gross distortion—to the Chinese context, and who were able to communicate this in countless meetings and discussions with government officials. This willingness to recognise, trust and invest in the potential of Chinese staff and partners—most of them from very ordinary backgrounds—was one of the key capacities that Kate brought to her work. By way of illustration, a young woman who in 1994 was one of the first Guangde housemothers, He Yao, subsequently trained care assistants elsewhere as the experiment was ‘replicated’ and went on ten years later to manage, in the north of Anhui, a substantial programme of community care and support for families that had lost one or more parents to AIDS. This was not sentimental or idealistic, it was an entirely practical ‘human resource’ strategy: for people with their feet firmly on the ground and an insider’s understanding of the systems Save the Children was engaging with were often more effective than better educated, English-speaking staff (He Yao spoke no English) with their cap set at doing a PhD overseas. But it was also a way of showing government partners, who were accustomed to complain of this or that resource shortage, that their primary resources were people, and that there was enormous, latent potential in the abundant local material. This included unleashing and demonstrating the capacities of people typically regarded as having no abilities and being a burden on society. For example, also in Anhui, Save the Children later appointed a profoundly deaf woman, Shi Li, to manage a programme to improve education for deaf children and their families, and helped a group of young disabled people to create a local NGO, Rights into Action, which organised self-help and ‘public awareness’ activities, and was headed by Fu Shengjun, a young man who had grown up in a Child Welfare Institute.

They kill babies, don’t they?

As well as coping with rather conservative government partners, the Guangde project had to ride the storm of ‘The Dying Rooms,’ a TV documentary screened by the UK’s Channel 4 in 1995. It was made by two Australians who toured Child Welfare Institutes posing as international charity workers and using hidden cameras to film scenes of appalling malpractice: toddlers strapped to chairs for hours at a time or left unattended, soiled and crying, in bleak rows of cots. Most controversially, the film alleged that infants who did not thrive were purposefully left, in the eponymous ‘dying rooms,’ to waste away.[14]

I found this exposé disturbingly unbalanced. Journalism invariably simplifies—that, indeed, is largely its point, to make complex issues accessible to a wide audience—and TV journalism simplifies most of all. In my view its reach and influence confer upon documentary film-makers a duty to simplify exceedingly well; but The Dying Rooms was simplification at its emotive worst. The harrowing images were ‘true’—for gross malpractice and neglect certainly did occur, as Kate and Kath Brookfield seen, close up, for themselves—but the focus was on the worst abuses to be found, unrelieved by more ordinary scenes. There was no recognition that in many poor countries, not just China, children’s homes are very often gruesome. There was no recognition that the care system and procedures, however poorly framed and carried out—entrusted to individuals who had no interest in the work and no incentive to do a good job—were nonetheless designed to protect children. There was no recognition of efforts to improve practice and standards. Save the Children was one of the most effective international organisations working in this field but it was not unique: alongside several small (mainly Christian) charities there were other well-known international agencies, such us Unicef, and specialist Hong Kong agencies such as the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation, which was developing an extensive programme training care assistants in ‘conductive education’ therapy for cerebral palsied children. (This also offered training to local parents who had not abandoned their cerebral palsied children, encouraging the Welfare Institutes to connect with, rather than isolate themselves from, the local community of families with special needs children.) No-one watching The Dying Rooms would learn anything of this kind of experimentation. If such initiatives came mostly from outsiders, it was assistance to which the authorities were relatively open—as shown, indeed, by the very fact that posing as charity staff succeeded as a ruse for getting cameras into orphanages. And in fact not all of the initiatives came from outside. In Nanjing, the Amity Foundation was running a ‘grandmas programme’ to bring retired volunteers into Welfare Institutes to spend time with the children, supplying the cuddling and human warmth that are essential to healthy growth. The Foundation issued a statement deploring The Dying Rooms for much the reasons I have just outlined; but that small, independent Chinese voice could not have reached more than a few dozen of the film’s estimated 100 million viewers in 37 countries.

In short, The Dying Rooms depicted all of the darkness and none of the light.
Moreover its darkest claim, about infants consigned to ‘dying rooms,’ was surmise based on circumstantial evidence from just one institution. This was flimsy material to support such a charge but, as the Eastern Express ‘eating foetuses’ story also showed, standards of verification in international reporting from China were low—not least because of China’s highly restrictive treatment of foreign journalists and government officials’ stonewalling of them. The callow reporter could nearly always, and often with justice, plead the impossibility of confirming stories (although the viewer or reader was seldom cautioned to therefore take the report with a large pinch of salt). In this case the result was a film whose underlying message was that the Chinese government and people were preternaturally callous and cruel. For what sort of system or person would leave an abandoned baby to die of neglect as a matter of policy as the film implied? A satanic system, obviously; a monstrous person.

At the time it was first screened I had several discussions with friends who conceded that the film was sensationalist but felt that it might shame the government of China into doing better. This claim is so often made for international advocacy efforts and media exposés that it is worth examining carefully; but, thirteen years after the event, evidence that The Dying Rooms did anything to improve child welfare in China is, at best, equivocal. In the short term, it became harder to make progress in international projects because for a year or so the whole subject was deemed particularly ‘sensitive.’ At such times (as we later observed in other fields too) Chinese officials tend to go into a kind of precautionary paralysis, pending a clear policy signal from higher levels, preferring to do nothing for a while rather than risk doing something that might later be judged to be wrong. We do know that the central Ministry of Civil Affairs studied the film in detail, sending copies out for provincial authorities to scrutinise in order to identify which orphanages had been filmed; we did not hear of particular institutions or individuals suffering reprisals, but this may have happened.

Conspicuously lacking, however, was any new policy direction or funding commitment. This was hardly surprising. The Civil Affairs authorities were nominally responsible for providing relief and assistance to tens of millions of China’s most vulnerable and needy citizens—including the indigent, vagrants, street children, orphans and abandoned children, elderly people without family support, people with disabilities and victims of the natural disasters that routinely occurr across China—and they also oversaw ‘basic level governance,’ meaning the administration of urban and rural communities. Yet it was not a politically powerful institution and attracted only a small share of the government purse which, in the mid 90s, was hardly brimming over. China’s total government budgetary revenues amounted at the time to only about 11 percent of gross national income [15], compared to around 20 percent in most developing countries and more than 45 percent in developed countries. Government in China was ‘big’ in the sense that it was extensive, but it was not well endowed. Welfare lotteries supplemented Civil Affairs income but in poorer areas it was still impossible for them to discharge their nominal responsibilities completely; they had to prioritise. At that time Premier Zhu Rongji was trying to drive forward ‘reform’ of state owned enterprises—which meant rising lay-offs in the urban workforce as loss-making concerns were broken up, privatised or closed down—and the main political priority was to cushion the impact of redundancies and forestall possible unrest in the cities. The Civil Affairs system was charged with getting together a ‘minimum guaranteed income’ scheme for the poorest urban households. It also had to oversee the election of village committees to replace the command structure of the now-disbanded rural communes; and it was leading ‘community construction’ efforts to transfer to local (in due course, elected) urban residents’ committees responsibility for providing amenities that ‘work unit’ employers previously supplied. Finally, it was responsible for registration and management of non profit organisations. In such circumstances—where the system was under hard budgetary constraints while running to catch up with changes in society and develop new social and administrative structures—the claims of orphans received scant attention. The attitude of many officials was that this was an exasperating detail: they had already invested in building orphanages, many of which were quite shiny, and they provided a monthly allowance for each child in state care: what more could anyone expect?

For it was abundantly clear that the bureaucrats had little idea how to improve care standards and there was precious little local expertise to call upon. There was, for example, no history of social work as a profession in China and almost no relevant training in the care services. A handful of universities were beginning to create social work degree courses; Hong Kong Polytechnic University, for example, was collaborating with Beijing University on a programme funded by the German Catholic agency, Misereor, to create a Masters programme for people who would go on to teach social work. But in most cases, as Sociology departments began to create social work sub-departments, the faculty themselves had no relevant experience and were generally drawn from other disciplines. A teacher of Marxism-Leninism, for which there was diminishing demand, might easily find herself drafted into teaching social work. Moreover, because there was no career path for a social work graduate, it was not a subject of choice for students: the courses were mainly filled with those whose test scores were too low to enter subjects that offered a more secure future.

Across the whole field of social welfare the outside world had a wealth of experience to offer both at the micro level of training front line staff and at the macro level of advising on the design of protection systems. Yet net international funding in this field was derisory by comparison with the hundreds of millions of dollars provided by official aid donors (foreign governments and multilateral institutions like UN agencies) in loans, grants and technical assistance to support various aspects of market-oriented economic reform, or the billions loaned for building roads, bridges, ports, power stations, sewage and water treatment plants. How galling, then, for Civil Affairs officials, who were receiving rather little practical support from overseas, to find themselves stigmatised around the world as child killers.

The fog of charity

The Dying Rooms did, however, prompt an outpouring of concern and sympathy from Western viewers, swelling private donations to international charities with their foot already in the orphanage door and stimulating the creation of new ones. The film makers endorsed the establishment of a Dying Rooms Trust that soon had money to spend but discovered the practical difficulties of doing so effectively—not least because the government of China insisted that it would not accept assistance that was in any way connected with the film. (The Trust in due course changed its name to COCOA, ‘Care Of China’s Orphaned and Abandoned children,’ which today continues to raise and distribute funds.) By the turn of the century there were at least at least twenty (and probably more) private international organisations running small-scale charitable programmes for Chinese orphans, usually through arrangements made with local governments and individual institutions. [16] The international groups donated equipment, financed improvements to buildings and facilities, provided or sponsored training for care staff and sponsored surgeries. (Reconstructive cleft lip and palate operations were a staple, but some groups funded much more complex procedures; one, in the late 90s, made much of the fact that it had sent a child to the United States for open heart surgery). In one case (in the city of Xining in Qinghai Province) the Civil Affairs authorities contracted out the running of a Child Welfare Institute to a Hong Kong group, Christian Action. Several other organisations managed to set up entirely private homes (with the tacit or explicit blessing of the local authorities) or to support private homes that were beginning to be established by (often Christian) Chinese citizens.

There is no doubt that thousands of Chinese children benefited individually from these efforts and that many front-line Chinese staff and officials were exposed to a range of international ideas about institutional and community care. It may be that this promoted a wider belief that higher standards were not only desirable but also attainable. But it was also the case that international (and domestic) assistance was ad hoc, unevenly distributed, uncoordinated, lacking any common strategy or approach (as illustrated by the radically different styles of Save the Children and SOS-Kinderdorf). It is extremely unlikely that the national Ministry of Civil Affairs could even put together a list of the myriad international and domestic groups that were providing support of one kind or another around the country. In fact I know they couldn’t because in later years Ministry officials several times approached me for just such information.

This lack of coordination, and indeed the lack more coherent and comprehensive mechanisms for protecting children, largely reflected the Ministry’s weak control over the localities. As with other government departments, its provincial (and sub-provincial) offices were nominally mandated by the central ministry but were funded by, and so also answerable to, local governments. This limited the capacity of almost any ministry to push its directives and initiatives (or, indeed, approaches from international assistance projects that it considered successful) down to the localities unless it created and directly funded special programmes. The result—as in many other social and economic sectors—was a mosaic of local variations in practice that tended to blur rather than to resolve what I saw as the key policy issue: the respective roles and responsibilities of central and local government, the private sector and the non-profit sector.

Local authorities were often ready to welcome any form of assistance they could get and even (as in the case of Xining) to pass the baton altogether; but this readiness usually seemed to stem not from any strategic plan or vision so much as from the simple grasping at short-term opportunities to minimise costs or shelve responsibilities—one less thing to have to worry about. In at least some cases, decisions appeared to be based on wholly venal calculations about local institutional interests. For example, in 2002 a (Chinese) woman who several years previously had managed to establish a private orphanage in a north-eastern city approached me for advice when she ran into trouble with local Civil Affairs officials. They, she told me, were initially happy for her to take some children from the local Welfare Institute into her care, where they thrived; but the officials became hostile to her work when she started attracting a small level of funding support from ‘foreign Christians.’ The officials, she said, were ‘jealous,’ and also concerned that the high standards of care she achieved cast their own Institute in a bad light. So they forcibly removed most of the children from her care and put them back into the local Institute.[17]

It may well be that the officials in this case had one eye to possible income from international adoptions—for, although the procedures for this were administered through a national office within the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Child Welfare Institutes received a fee of USD 5,000 for each child adopted. Adoptions from China to the United States (much the most common destination) rose steeply from a few hundred per year in the early 1990s to several thousand per year after 1995, peaking at nearly 8,000 in 2005. [18] From 1995 to 2008 inclusive, Americans adopted 70,948 Chinese children, which suggests an income of USD 354 million for the Child Welfare Institutes from couples in the United States alone: far more, beyond shadow of doubt, than the combined investments in orphan-related projects by international and domestic organisations. Although the trend was already upwards in 1995, as adoption agencies and systems on both sides had been put in place to manage the flow, it may well be that ‘The Dying Rooms’ contributed to this overseas adoption spike, as people who were thinking about adopting anyway turned their search to China, additionally motivated by the thought that they would be rescuing a child from a grim fate.

I should make clear that I am not opposed to international adoption which, as Kate and I have seen in the case of several personal friends, can make for families that are as happy and loving as any other. International adoption is also giving rise to interesting new forms of transnational association as adopting parents set out to acquaint themselves with Chinese culture and develop connections with their child’s place of origin. Several organisations established by adopting parents joined the effort to improve conditions for children remaining in the Chinese state’s care and some international adoption agencies also sponsored assistance programmes. [19]

But there can be little doubt that local officials and Institute directors commonly saw both international assistance and international adoption largely as a way of funding their own operations or minimising their own ‘burdens.’ By the late 1990s many Child Welfare Institutes in provincial capitals and big cities had deployed domestic donations and foreign assistance to brighten up and re-equip their premises and improve care for their charges, creating a presentable platform for adoption, while less ‘adoptable’ children, including many with severe disabilities, tended to be consigned to more remote, much less bright and much less well-endowed facilities, or else fostered out to rural families who were paid a small, monthly allowance. This was basically a commercial arrangement, with foster parents typically concentrated, for administrative ease, in one or two fairly accessible villages: so there were a few villages that specialised in raising orphans much as there were villages that specialised in raising sheep. Save the Children went on, in later programmes in Anhui and elsewhere, to work with parents in these foster villages to improve the quality of care they gave (both by offering ‘training’ and by creating small community play and resource centres that were open to all of the village children) and also to improve Civil Affairs supervision of these foster placements.

Even this relatively small and specific issue of care for abandoned children thus presented remarkable complexity, competing incentives, motivations and visions, and many potential pitfalls for foreign engagement. Kate continued to work as closely as possible with government systems for two main reasons. Firstly, it was the government of China that had (in 1992) ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Save the Children took as its institutional Magna Carta), accepting an international obligation to protect its minors. Secondly, the existing government systems, although fragmented between departments and tiers and in many cases functioning badly, were very extensive, reaching down to all but the most remote, rural areas; if they could only be made to work better, and to work together! (The international donor dream again.) Yet government people in the localities were reluctant to do anything that would increase either their workload or their expenditure, while private citizens who cared about these things, and who by the late 1990s had the space to exercise some initiative, were often determined to create their own services because they had no faith in government’s ability and very low expectations of state systems.

Unbiddable heroine

One such person was Ms. Zhang Shuqin, who worked as a ‘prison journalist’ (producing in-house publications for the prison system) in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province (population 37 million). She had met numerous men awaiting execution and women serving life sentences who were extremely distressed about their children’s future. In typical cases the father had murdered the mother and had been sentenced to death or the mother had killed the father and been imprisoned for life. Either way, the children were left without parental care. These tragedies, Zhang told me when I met her in 1997, had nearly all occurred in rural families that had ‘no legal knowledge, and no-one to turn to for mediation.’ She decided to go and look for the children of these fatally unhappy marriages.

She enlisted the support of a local entrepreneur, Mr Guo Jianhua. He had himself been jailed during the Cultural Revolution because, as a young technical enthusiast and radio ham, he was suspected of spying. On his release he applied his technical skills to the problem of making money—an activity of which the authorities by then approved—and in his home village, an hour’s drive from Xi’an, he started an agro-processing company that became highly successful. By the mid 90s, he employed the community’s entire labour force in several factories and had re-built the village in grand, ‘European’ style with a dash of Walt Disney: every house had two storeys, many with yellow and blue decorative turrets, and a garden. It was a distinctly odd lacuna of other-worldly affluence squatting in the wheat fields of the North China plain. An imposing community hall with blue tinted windows provided premises for the village committee (of which Guo was the elected head) but stood largely empty and unused.

Zhang and Guo traveled around Shaanxi Province for several weeks in 1995 and gathered together more than 20 prisoners’ children who they installed in a converted section of the community hall. The children had suffered extreme neglect. In theory, the authorities in their communities of origin—the village committees that were in the process of being established to replace the old ‘commune’ structure—should have made provision for their care; but, according to Zhang, neighbours and relatives considered the children tainted with ‘bad blood’ felt that they brought shame on the whole community and treated them as culprits rather than victims. As with the reluctance of Child Welfare Institute care assistants to pick up orphan infants, there seemed to be a fear that suffering and disgrace were contagious. Most of the children were thus kept, grudgingly, as unpaid servants. One six year old boy had for two years been made to sleep with goats in a shed. Others had wandered off by themselves to live on the streets of cities.

Given the circumstances, the rescued children in their new village-hall home seemed remarkably well-balanced and happy. The boy from the goat shed, affectionately known as Hei Dou (‘Black Bean’), trotted around after the grandfather-patriarch Guo, seizing any opportunity to clamber onto his lap. The converted facilities were clean, well-kept and comfortable but not ostentatious, and the young care assistants were neat and pleasant. Several of the children were attending the local school. Zhang told me she was careful to provide a level of material care that was decent but ‘realistic,’ and she appeared fully aware of the need to prepare the children, some of whom were young teenagers, for independence.

As well as providing for the children, Zhang had been remarkably successful in alerting the wider public to their plight. Numerous local and national newspapers had written feature stories about the ‘children’s village’ and Shaanxi TV had made a six part documentary about it. Six parts were rather a lot for so simple, albeit harrowing, a tale but Chinese media loved this kind of theme and often went in for extended treatments, repeatedly lingering over scenes such as a compassionate hero(ine) staring into the distance and brushing away a tear. I found this highly affected; but plenty of reasons suggested themselves for both the amount and the nature of such coverage.

In the first place, Chinese audiences (and programme makers) were still relatively new to TV: in 1978 only two per cent of households owned a set, but by 1996 there was one in virtually every household, with 960 million regular viewers. [20] Nearly all programming still plodded along at a pace reminiscent of TV in the West in the 1960s, and there was as yet little subtlety in conveying either feelings or story lines. Secondly, mass media could explore human interest and social stories like this in relative freedom from political restrictions (and it did not seem unduly optimistic to see this as the journalistic profession unfurling its wings). Thirdly, the exercise of private initiative in public and social affairs was genuinely newsworthy after so long a period when everything was either taken care of by the work unit, the government, the Party, the system, or else neglected altogether. Public displays of private compassion thus had in themselves a kind of political resonance. Fourthly, China is deeply attached to virtuous archetypes. In imperial times, memorial arches were erected to celebrate outstanding examples of filial piety or the fidelity of widows. Stakanovite model workers, peasants and soldiers had been mythologised in the Maoist era and awards for model workers were still handed out in official ceremonies, but with little élan; there seemed to be a desire for new models, and social activists like Zhang captured the media’s imagination, which itself seemed a sign changing times.

It is also the case that some activists worked the media assiduously, producing tears and tear-jerking stories on demand. The resulting profiles, which had become fairly common by the late 1990s, were usually insipid and in some cases downright tasteless. In a particularly ghoulish example, on Disabled Person’s Day in 1999 a woman called Chang Meng, who had been pestering me to profile her Beijing Care and Family Services Centre (whose purpose and actual activities were extremely hard to discern), managed to get herself photographed on the front page of the Beijing Youth Daily, one of China’s major broadsheets, ‘showing compassion’ by visiting a severely disabled and disfigured young man in hospital. To me this seemed less an act of civic virtue than of self-promotion on her part; and, on the part of the paper, less a case of social reporting than of voyeurism.

Around the same time, Zhou Litai, a lawyer who had become quite famous for representing injured migrant workers in compensation claims, came for a meeting at my office and insisted on making me and my colleagues watch all the way through a DVD copy of a China Central TV documentary about him; it dwelt less on the abuses suffered by the workers than on the effects this had on Lawyer Zhou’s heartstrings.

There was no sign of vanity or conceit in Zhang Shuqin. In the years to come I met her often and heard her speak to a variety of audiences: she was passionate and determined, highly effective at communicating with her compatriots, and seemed completely authentic.

The TV and press coverage precipitated a flood of letters from prisoners all over the country appealing to Zhang to take care of their children; she showed me a sample of the ‘hundreds’ that she said she had received. Her dream, she said, was to cater for this demand by opening a 200-bed facility, not so much a children’s village as a children’s city. I had myself spent five years as a residential social worker in the English midlands, working with young men in trouble with the law, and I could not imagine anything worse than gathering 200 traumatised children together under the same roof. Over a lunch that Zhang and her teenage daughter prepared for us in their modest, work-unit apartment we had a vigorous exchange of views on this, interpreted by Yang Haiyu, one of Kate’s Save the Children staff who had accompanied me on the trip. (Yang was a young Business Studies graduate from Yunnan University who had, as well as near perfect and largely self-taught English, the great gift of making strangers comfortable and drawing them out. He stayed with the organization for a decade, becoming a seasoned facilitator of ‘child participation.’ China was so full of talent.)

We also discussed the state’s responsibilities to these children who the criminal justice system had effectively orphaned. Had Zhang approached the Civil Affairs authorities and encouraged them to intervene in these cases? She was utterly dismissive. They simply wouldn’t be interested, she insisted, and I think she was probably right. At any rate, despite the publicity she attracted, there was no sign of the central Ministry or the provincial authorities changing their policy or their practice; they seemed content to leave these children in the care of ‘society.’

Ten years later, this remained the case. By then Zhang had abandoned the vision of a children’s city but she had created a new ‘Sunshine Village’ on the outskirts of Beijing with 50 resident children, and was managing to a keep this running with a shifting cast of small donors (including international and overseas Chinese businesses, individuals, and contributions from the expatriate community) and volunteers. She seemed to have had some sort of dispute with Mr. Guo (who, as far as I could make out, continued to care for some of the children back in Shaanxi), and funding was always a struggle. In Shaanxi in 1997 she had tried to generate funds through business ventures staffed by former prisoners—a coal washing yard and a taxi company—but these did not prosper and it was hard to have much faith in her latest plans for commercial farming. While she strove to make ends meet there was no sign of the state coming to acknowledge responsibility for the children whose parents it had incarcerated or executed.

The policy fog

The human suffering accompanying social and economic transformation in China often brought to mind the pain of Britain’s industrial revolution. In Britain, a fraction of that pain was cushioned by philanthropists and churches setting up ‘ragged schools,’ foundling homes and orphanages, court missions to assist prisoners, hostels to keep single, working migrants off the streets and out of the gin and opium shops and brothels. Although ad hoc and insufficient, this charitable activity was an important pioneer and spur for more comprehensive education, welfare and protection services that the state began to put in place. As the 20th century progressed ‘voluntary organisations’ (as nonprofits are known in the UK) continued to serve as innovators—small and flexible enough to pilot new practices as social circumstances changed. For example, the ‘probation hostel’ where I served my time as a social worker was fully funded by government but run by the Rainer Foundation, named after a Victorian printer who felt that street urchins who were arrested for petty crime deserved a second chance. The UK Home Office had established around 90 similar hostels that were directly operated by local governments, offering courts an alternative to prison sentences for young male offenders. The courts could order them, instead of going to gaol, to live in the hostels and ‘lead industrious lives;’ ie, get a job. In the early 1980s, when mass unemployment made our residents virtually unemployable, we responded—literally overnight, when seven of our unemployed residents were arrested for shop-lifting on the same day—by introducing job and ‘life skills’ training schemes for them, instead of leaving them to roam the streets ‘looking for work.’ Many of the hostels operated by local governments soon followed suit; but it would have been hard for any of them, however well run or staffed, to have taken that initiative by themselves, for it would have required a lengthy, bureaucratic process of research and approval, whereas the Rainer Foundation was relatively streamlined and flexible and had its own, modest resources to invest in experimentation. Coming from this background I was naturally inclined to think of non profit organisations as civic experimenters and innovators whose proper role was not just to ‘serve society’ but also to shape government responses.

But China’s story was entirely different. The imperial state had established its first foundling home at least 2,000 years ago. From time immemorial government officials had played a leading role in flood and famine relief, in providing food aid to the indigent and support for widows. When private philanthropy began to appear in the late Ming and early Qing dynasty it was also largely marshalled and coordinated by the emperors’ men.[21] After the collapse of the imperial system and decades of war the communist state claimed a monopoly on social service provision—even though what it could provide was at best rudimentary and inherently unequal, privileging urban populations. There was no other social actor, and most people came to accept that. If there was a problem, the government should solve it, or no-one would.

When we arrived in China this was still the predominant mentality, both among ordinary citizens and among the millions who worked in government positions; but some remarkable individuals like Zhang Shuqin and Meng Weina were beginning to take things into their own hands and there were also signs that the state wanted to relinquish many of its social care responsibilities. These were already onerous in comparison to government budgets, with many service gaps; and, as China became less poor, aspirations were rising for the quality of life that ‘disadvantaged’ people might expect—already, this could be seen among better-off families who were looking for ways and facilities to improve the lives of disabled or elderly kin. Yet the net result was, at least for the time being, a muddle. I have concentrated on sketching here the situation of abandoned children, but a similar muddle could be seen across many other social sectors.

Numerous central government policy pronouncements and documents appealed to ‘social forces’ (shehui liliang) for assistance in fields ranging from special education to legal services.[22] This concept of social forces was—perhaps deliberately—vague and open-ended: notably, it offered no clear distinction between private, commercial activity and the non-profit, charitable sector. It seemed simply to mean ‘non-state,’ some actor other than the government. That lack of clarity is not surprising, for there were parallel ambiguities in economic policy where the ‘non-state’ sector comprised a motley range of enterprises styled as ‘collective’ (jiti) or ‘individual’ (geti) but from which a private sector was steadily emerging without official recognition or fanfare. More generally, vagueness was a typical characteristic of policy catchphrases emanating from the political centre, leaving localities the problem of interpreting the oracle but also some freedom to read it in their own way. This created space for local experimentation within broad parameters yet also left room for the central authorities to crack down on experiments that they thought were leading in undesirable directions.

Some officials interpreted social forces mainly in terms of trying to encourage corporate or individual donations to state-run institutions and services. At the same time, starting in the late 1980s, the central government created a number of ‘Foundations’ (such as the execrable FURC) which at first seemed essentially to be no more than public fundraising mechanisms to garner off-budgetary resources for government services. Yet the creation even of entities that stood at only one slight remove from government and the Communist Party itself seemed to imply some new propensity for delegation of social ‘tasks.’ (And not all of the foundations were execrable; FURC itself, indeed, was turned around by a new Secretary General, He Daofeng, appointed in 2000, who changed the organisation’s [English] name to the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation and led it into some quite cutting-edge work, by China’s standards, in microfinance.) Equally significant, these foundations were at first at pains in their promotional literature to stress their strong government links and background, this being at the time the principal means of demonstrating their legitimacy; but by the late 1990s they were typically emphasising instead their ‘non-profit, non-government’ character. In many cases this was largely a matter of ‘old wine in new bottles’ but it was also a sign that non-government actors were beginning to be seen as invested with at least some legitimacy of their own.

Meanwhile officials in some localities were ready not just to receive extra funding (either directly or through the government foundations) but to allow, even encourage, commercial private sector operators or non-profit organisations set up by private citizens to provide services. (Shanghai, whose collaboration with the YMCA I have already mentioned, was a case in point.) There was a precedent of sorts for this in that, during a drive to extend basic education during the 1980s, the state had mobilised communities to create minban (literally, ‘set up by the people’) primary schools in remote, rural communities that state services did not reach. These were, essentially, second-rate schools built by and with funds levied from communities, and then staffed with ill-qualified, barefoot teachers on low wages: it was largely a matter of accepting that second rate provision was better than none. There is, of course, a large difference between being mobilised by the state, or delegated a social task, and doing something on your own initiative. Yet, by the late 1990s, people who had acted on their own initiative were beginning to be welcomed by local government in some places. Examples other than that of Shanghai would include the Sichuan Holy Love Foundation (which ran a school and other services for disabled children, and which the local authorities allowed to register as a foundation even though technically it did not have sufficient registered capital) and He Tong, which grew rapidly as a non-profit provider of residential care for the elderly in several cities.

There was much to be welcomed in this development in terms of drawing on the creativity and ‘grass rootedness’ of private citizens and the organisations they created; but I found the surrounding fogginess of policy troubling. My view—a fairly typically European one, I am the first to acknowledge—was that ‘third sector’ non-profit services (and the private sector) should complement rather than substitute for state provision and that in the scramble to reduce budgetary pressures the state was in danger of abrogating its social obligations to its citizens. As will become clear in later chapters, the ongoing commercialisation of state services had already had deeply regressive consequences. Growing reliance on cost recovery through user charges rapidly stratified the state education system and
proved catastrophic in the public health system, resulting in hospitals providing poor quality care at prices that the majority of the population could not afford. And it was not only in the health sector that state provision was increasingly geared to those who could afford to pay. Retirement homes directly run by the Ministry of Civil Affairs were among the most comfortable and expensive, catering to the upper end of the market (including retired government cadres.) He Tong, the emerging non-profit provider, was largely dependent on cost recovery from charging fees but offered more modest facilities and reduced or waived fees for some needy clients; while even more rudimentary facilities and lower fees were provided by private sector operators. Similarly, the children of rural migrants in urban areas were generally priced out of state schooling and attended much shabbier minban facilities, either run as non-profit ventures or established commercially by rural entrepreneurs. Government resources, in other words, were heavily skewed towards social services that only the better-off could afford: quite the reverse of a European social welfare approach.

I saw this more as a policy outcome—a policy failure—than a policy in itself: the kind of thing that happens when you just muddle along, ‘feeling for the stones to cross the stream,’ as one of the Party leadership’s catchphrases expressed it. Part of the trouble, I felt, was that government’s social obligations were simply overtaken by the entrepreneurial spirit of the times. Local officials were ever on the look-out for ways to boost their GDP (many enriching themselves in the process if they could), maximise their local revenues and minimise expenditures. This meant a general reluctance to make social investments that were ‘non productive.’ (For example, China borrowed billions from the Asian Development Bank for building roads and bridges but refused, despite the Bank’s earnest desire to lend in social sectors, to borrow a cent on commercial terms for health or education projects because these would not bring a financial return.) Also apparent was a general determination to minimise service delivery costs or find ways to offset and subsidise them. The most notorious case of this was the public health authorities’ venture into the commercial blood plasma trade, which led to an AIDS epidemic in the central provinces. But this was only one of myriad sideline businesses that government departments got into. I was, for example, astonished to find, when visiting the Yunnan provincial government’s Forcible Drug Detoxification Centre in Kunming in 1999, that alongside the dormitories to which the police delivered addicts for their forcible therapy stood a private wing, with accommodation roughly comparable to that of a three star Chinese hotel. This, the officials who showed me round proudly told me, accepted paying clients from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and even Taiwan on voluntary de-tox programmes.

By the time, early in the new century, that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao assumed the national leadership and began to talk about the need to ‘balance’ economic development with social development, huge damage had already been done, especially in the health sector; and it would, even with a booming economy and the best will in the world, take some time to repair. Yet, at this writing, the global financial crisis threatens once again to re-focus attention on economic growth at all costs.

The point I want to emphasise here, though, is that although I came for a while to be known as an authority on all things regarding NGOs in China (and therefore a presumed NGO partisan) I never believed—as, I am afraid, a growing number of young Chinese people did, in my view mistakenly, believe—that NGO service provision or the development of a philanthropic sector were in any sense ‘the answer’ to China’s hard budgetary constraints; nor did I feel inclined to celebrate the emergence of Chinese NGOs, as some international observers did, in terms of their part in ‘rolling back the state.’ On the contrary, I felt that the important task was to make the states’ allocation of resources more equitable and to make government services work for the poor. Here, I felt, the NGOs could play a useful role: not in substituting for government but, by example or by ‘advocacy’ or both, by making it work better. It was a sad reflection of the difficulty of that task, however, that the tenacious work of Zhang Shuqin should have been so blithely ignored by the authorities.

Moreover, it is certainly not the case that non-government interventions were always and, in mere virtue of being non-government, beneficial. This was not just because citizen activists often lacked qualifications, experience and proficiency in their chosen field of service—for in many fields the same was true of government employees, who generally also lacked motivation. More seriously, at least some citizen activism helped to drive bad policy responses. For example, as I will argue in more detail in Chapter 9, some activists who, early in the new century, took up the cause of ‘AIDS orphans’ in Henan Province—including Hu Jia, who was imprisoned in 2007 on subversion charges and in 2008 given a Sakharov Human Rights award by the European Union—rode roughshod over the rights of children who had already suffered appallingly, using them as media fodder, and also pressured the local authorities into bad practice. (Notably, in order to demonstrate that it was doing something, the Henan government followed the example of the activists by isolating some of the affected children from society in specially created and inevitably stigmatising AIDS ‘Sunshine Homes.’)

To return to Kate and ‘de-institutionalisation of care.’ She realised that whatever service delivery model finally emerged—whether mainly governmental, or mainly contracted out to private or non profit providers (as in Hong Kong) or mixed—the government needed not just models of good practice but help with creating standards, procedures and monitoring systems to support more humane systems of care. Save the Children was well placed to offer this, drawing on their knowledge and experience of the terrible mistakes made elsewhere in the world (and, not least, in the Western world, whose own history of both private and state institutional care is grim enough.) Collaboration in developing standards thus became a major strand of their work with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. This eventually resulted, among other things, in the Ministry adopting in 2005 national guidelines on fostering, developed with Chinese Save the Children staff.

Bureaucracy and freedom

Despite the unpromising start to work in Yunnan it was there, in the provincial capital of Kunming, that Kate set up the China headquarters of her child saving operations, partly for strategic reasons, partly just because it proved doable.

There was no set procedure for international NGOs to establish a legal presence in China, it was always a question of what could be negotiated with government officials who must have found it extremely hard to understand where, in every sense, the organisations were coming from, and who were often inclined to suspect ulterior motives. (Which did not necessarily preclude cooperation: the thinking appeared, rather, to be: whatever your real motives, if you can be of short-term use to us and if we can ‘manage’ you adequately then we can do business.) The NGOs generally needed the patronage of a government agency with sufficient stature to obtain necessary permits from other parts of the bureaucracy and, by implication, accept responsibility for any misdemeanour that the foreigners committed. This was not usually a big problem for operations run from off-shore: they could simply sign a memorandum of understanding with a local government (typically desperate to capture at least some foreign resources) for each project they undertook. But it was a much harder step to open a representative office, employ Chinese staff legally and obtain the paperwork necessary to open a bank account etc. Some NGOs, including well-known groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières, operated for many years entirely in the grey economy, running offices out of residential apartments, hiring local staff without legal contracts, managing finances through personal bank accounts and making do with multiple-entry business visas procured for expatriates through commercial middlemen. If anyone asked, the organisation could justifiably reply that the government had not yet created registration processes.

Kate, however, was determined to operate as legally and transparently as possible. This extended to insisting that her Chinese staff pay personal income tax when the government began to introduce it in the late 1990s; the staff thought this was a terrible idea, their natural reaction, like that of everyone else in China, being to find all possible means of evading it. Kate had an interesting time arguing that if it was right to abide by Chinese labour laws (which, although hardly anyone else abided by them, offered workers generous protections) it was also right to comply with tax rules; and that China’s government, of which people expected so much, could not operate without a revenue base. (Besides, although I don’t know if she made this point, personal income tax just might over time propel political reform in China, given that the world’s greatest power was established on the principle ‘no taxation without representation.’) But in addition to issues of principle Kate saw full compliance with existing legislation, and the trust she hoped it would create, as an essential foundation for building a programme of any size. (She grew Save the Children’s to a multi-million pound operation employing around 140 Chinese people). Having seen the mess of international aid in other countries, she also felt that host governments should be fully engaged in coordinating these efforts. Thus she established what was probably the most above-board, law-abiding international NGO operation in China; whereas my little outfit, which we will come to later, was probably the most illegal and, partly for that reason, never grew to above a dozen people.

Kate at first pursued sponsorship possibilities in Beijing, contacting parastatal organisations such as the All-China Women’s Federation and the China Disabled Persons’ Federation. (The former was set up in 1949 as a Leninist ‘mass organisation’ to rally women behind the Party line but, in the run up to a major, UN Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, was beginning to project itself internationally as an ‘NGO.’ The latter was established in 1988 and led by Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang, who had been rendered paraplegic during the Cultural Revolution when he was thrown by Red Guards from a building on the Beijing University campus). Some were interested, but only on condition that they themselves receive or direct the lion’s share of any funding. Their general attitude was ‘Give us the money and we’ll do the job,’ with little thought that NGOs might have something other than money to contribute. And when they found out how small Kate’s total China budget was (only, at the time, a few hundred thousand dollars a year [23]) they soon lost interest anyway.

Another Beijing port of call was the China International Centre for Economic and Technical Exchange (CICETE). In 1984, when foreign government donors and UN agencies first started entering China, the national Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation had been assigned responsibility for dealing with them—in no small part because this ministry had staff who spoke foreign languages. [24] The ministry became the intermediary for most foreign government aid and it established CICETE to act as a counterpart (duikou danwei) to the UN Development Programme and the ‘executing agency’ for its projects. (This cost the central government nothing for, in an arrangement of which UNDP remained ignorant for years, CICETE covered its own expenses by charging a fee to the provinces or departments which benefited from projects that were eventually agreed.) These arrangements were often highly irksome to the donors, limiting their ability to pursue their own priorities or even to talk directly to line ministries and other actors in their priority fields; but, being bound by government and UN protocol, they had to work through the appointed broker.

CICETE included a small department that tried to capture international NGO funding; but, like the Women’s Federation, it expected to design and carry out projects that the NGOs would merely fund (and their portfolio of past projects was distinctly underwhelming.) Most NGOs don’t work like that and so steered well clear of CICETE. Despite her belief that government had a legitimate role in coordinating international aid, Kate did likewise: for the CICETE NGO Division was, all too clearly, not ‘the government,’ it was just one governmental work unit trying to create a role and grab some resources for itself. (In later years, the NGO Division itself assumed an ‘NGO’ face by recasting itself as a China Association of NGOs Cooperation which claimed as ‘members’ previous project beneficiaries—local Women’s Federation branches and (purely nominal) farmers’ organisations. [25] This pseudo-NGO identity appeared to boost the group’s fortunes in attracting foreign partners; but, to be fair, it also began to work more closely with them, rather than just taking their money.)

The tepid response of Chinese agencies was not offset by any encouragement from other aid expatriates. The head of one UN agency advised, nay, warned Kate not to bother opening an office in the capital for, he said, political surveillance and controls would make it impossible to do anything constructive. Better, he urged, to stay in the provinces (each of which was, in any case, the size of a European nation state) where she would have more chance of making an impact and, likely, more freedom to do so.

So Kate turned instead to Yunnan, whose relatively relaxed atmosphere was commonly put down to the fact that ‘the mountains are high and the Emperor far away.’ Roughly equidistant from Anhui and Tibet, it was a feasible location from which to oversee existing projects in those places and within easy reach of Save the Children’s regional office in Bangkok. As a poor province with a high proportion of ethnic minority people it was an appropriate base for a development agency, and there were early signs of an AIDS epidemic developing there. Save the Children had just taken on a medical adviser to try to revive the Yunnan ‘village doctor’ programme—Nagib Hussein, a northern Sudanese doctor who had trained at Shanghai Medical University—and he was urging Kate to abandon the stalled project in favour of AIDS prevention work. After our experiences of AIDS in Malawi she didn’t need much persuading. Finally, the organisation had the longstanding friendship of one Mr. Hu, the charming, elderly chairman of the Kunming Chamber of Commerce, to whom Save the Children’s owed the very existence of a China programme—for, one day several years earlier, he had walked into Kate’s predecessor’s office in Hong Kong and urged him to come to the mainland. And Mr. Hu knew people.

In her partner-seeking forays from Hong Kong Kate was accompanied, as interpreter and aide de camp, by the only Hong Kong staff member she retained: Teresa Tang, the office accountant, a woman who I would call ‘mad’ in the way that an Englishman uses the world, with a profound respect for eccentricity. A Cantonese speaker, she had taught herself Mandarin by listening to the pop songs of 1970s Taiwanese star, Teresa Tang. The shared surname was coincidental but ‘our’ Teresa had adopted the Christian name in honour of the singer. She remembered the exact price of everything and would haggle relentlessly to shave a quarter per cent more off anything, cherishing the bargain itself far more than whatever was being bargained for. Yet it was hard to believe that she was an accountant because she was so astonishingly messy: piles of receipts overflowed from desk drawers and handbags which, when the monthly accounts were due, she would attack in a couple of all-night stints, snacking on chocolate and pot-noodles and snatching the odd hour’s sleep on the office floor. (Everything balanced perfectly, I hasted to add.) This left her the remainder of the month to do anything except accounts. (She achieved even greater economies of time management when, after helping to establish the Kunming office, she left in 1996 to take a job at Save the Children’s London headquarters. One full-time job in a 9-5 office was not enough for her so she studied, concurrently and also full-time, for a Masters degree. She also found time to make several, four-day bus tours round Europe. The bus was the best bargain and four days was as long as Hong Kong people would usually spare for holidays before they felt it was time to get back to the office.) Teresa loved being in China and she loved interpreting China for us, ever full of nods and winks and elbow nudges whose precise meaning was never quite apparent. Banqueting, deal-making and building relationships were what she liked best of all; and, in general, being the intermediary, the one who could help cement relations between the weirdo curly headed foreign woman and the mainlanders who she addressed with a curious mixture of heartiness and condescension, treating them, I thought, as unsophisticated country bumpkins. Yet they mostly seemed to respond remarkably well.

A lot of dinners and relationship-building proved necessary over the course of several trips. Mr. Hu introduced Kate and Teresea to Madame Bao, a mysterious and extraordinarily elegant businesswoman of some sort. (Perhaps she was in high-end cosmetics, for she had the flawless complexion and luxuriant hair of a woman twenty years younger: I didn’t realise, until Teresa instructed us to address her as Bao Dajie, ‘Big Sister Bao,’ that she was considerably older than us.) Big Sister Bao made an introduction to Mr. Wang, the head of the Yunnan Peoples Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body and kind of ‘second chamber’ to the Yunnan People’s Government. Mr. Wang make introductions to Mr. Peng, who headed the Yunnan Department of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation (DOFTEC).

Lengthy discussions with Mr. Peng took place over several meetings, covering terrain such as ‘Why do you want to work on AIDS, we don’t have a problem with that, it’s poverty alleviation we need here, can’t you build schools instead?’ But in the end agreement was reached: Save the Children would establish a Yunnan Programme Office—it was never allowed to call itself a national office, as anything ‘national’ had to be located under the emperor’s nose in Beijing—receiving from DOFTEC a business registration licence that would enable them to open bank accounts and hire staff. Its official counterpart agency would be the recently established Yunnan International NGO Society (YINGOS). This was not a ‘society’ at all, but something set up by Yunnan DOFTEC to manage international NGOS—rather on the model of the CICETE NGO Division but limited to a ‘supervisory’ role rather than trying to capture and run with the money. It was led by one Guo Jingming: a not very engaging man who owed this government sinecure, it was widely whispered, to the high military rank of his father; but Kate did her utmost, over the years, to keep him onside and to educate him: reporting regularly and in detail on programme development, sending him to visit projects in other provinces, etc. He never put any obstacles in her way and, in due course, became genuinely helpful in maintaining good relations with other provincial departments and a real advocate for Save the Children in his dealings with higher level government.

As they descended the stairs after their last meeting, which had been conducted in Mandarin and interpreted by Teresa and Mr. Peng’s assistant, Mr. Peng turned to Kate and said, in exquisite English: ‘Do you know why I have agreed to this, Kate? It is because I believe that you and your organisation will act as a magnet to bring other foreign groups to Yunnan Province.’ What a smooth operator! It turned out that he hailed from get-ahead Guangdong (Canton) Province, had previously served as personal interpreter to the premier, Li Peng, and had now been assigned a provincial job to refresh his knowledge of the grassroots. The meetings had given him ample opportunity, while looking on impassively, to overhear exchanges between Kate and Teresa and study their interactions as they conferred on tactics, and to judge whether these people meant any harm. Now he was letting them know, in a way that perhaps also suggested a friendly warning, that he was not stupid, not a country bumpkin at all. What’s more, he was both confident and open-minded enough to permit experimentation. And he was entirely right about Save the Children acting as a magnet for others. Oxfam Hong Kong had already beaten a path to Kunming, which was the main seat of their Southwest China programme. Many other groups would follow over the next decade. But most of them, I have to say, avoided Guo Jingming and his YINGOs like the plague—thus passing up a small, historic opportunity to consolidate a mechanism for government-NGO coordination and dialogue in Yunnan, and instead perpetuating the mess and uncertainty of which they all complained.

Writing China

This breakthrough in negotiations came unexpectedly, leaving us about six weeks to pack up and leave Hong Kong before a new school year began. Teresa insisted that we ship all of our furniture, which she had obtained free from the Hong Kong U.S. Consulate when once they cleared their warehouse of old junk, since this worked out marginally cheaper than buying new stuff in Kunming. Our boys were accepted into the Kunming International Academy. That left the question of what I was going to do, for up until then I had been expecting to end up in Beijing where I had thought to get some kind of mainstream news media job. That would not be feasible in Yunnan for nearly all news still revolves around power centres, not the multiple peripheries where most people live. Besides, I was not comfortable with the idea of parachuting into so complex a place as China and becoming an overnight expert on it, interpreting it for the outside world. And, finally, working for mainstream media from Malawi had taught me that until you become part of the elite corps of senior writers and columnists you have negligible impact on the editorial perspective: you are, understandably enough, expected to produce copy that reflects their view of the world. A small example: both The Financial Times and The Economist, if ever I wrote ‘According to the World Bank’ would simply cut that phrase, regarding the source as authoritative enough to stand as fact without wasting a line of print; I did not share that view. And even before arriving in China, I was beginning to feel that much of the international mainstream had a penchant for negative coverage. (I would exculpate The Financial Times from that judgment for, of all the UK media, it has most consistently argued that the world must accommodate China’s rise.) So, on the whole I felt that I would rather row my own boat than work as a deck-hand on someone else’s steamship.

The upshot was that I decided, more or less overnight, to create a quarterly, print newsletter (for this was still some years before the web had become anything like world wide) reporting on international engagement in social development across China: encompassing the World Bank and Asia Development Bank, UN and foreign government agencies, foundations and NGOs. (I was less interested in the transport and energy infrastructure that the development banks were financing: this of course had huge economic and social, not to mention environmental impacts; but I have a short attention span when it comes to engineering.) The idea was in large part the result of seeing Kate struggle with ‘data gaps’ as she hatched her child saving plans. Aside from all she needed to learn about China, there was no way (and certainly no ‘one-stop shop’) to find out what other international agencies were doing or how they saw and thought about things other than by visiting them all individually, which she lacked time and money to do.

I first conceived China Development Brief’s contribution mainly in terms of ‘improved information flows’ that would enhance ‘communication and coordination’ between agencies and thus their ‘aid effectiveness’ but that could also draw on their diverse knowledge and experience to present concise overviews and analysis of various fields. In later years I came to see what I had tried to do more in terms of donor transparency and accountability: China was at that time receiving about USD 3 billion per year in ‘official development assistance,’ all of it originating from taxpayers somewhere, along with, I calculated, at least USD 100 million from private foundations and NGOs; there ought to be a professional, informed, objective and, above all, independent media reporting on this. Even at our zenith China Development Brief never had the resources or capacity to do justice to the task (and, in any case, I kept leading it in other directions); yet it was, strange to say, a globally unique example, or at least symbol, of what was needed. In 2001 The Public Media Center in San Francisco, a non-profit communications agency for public interest causes, and which was keen to advance ours, had urged us to adopt the strapline: ‘China Development Brief. Don’t you wish that every country had one?’ I (and another Brit, Jim Weldon, working with me then) recoiled in stiff upper lipped horror from the idea of such flagrant self promotion and never used the line; but they were absolutely right. In the long run, though, the English publication was, in any case, perhaps of less significance than the Chinese publication I went on to create, by a series of faltering but lucky half steps—but I will come to that later. The point is that at the outset I didn’t know where this would lead, had no long or even medium-term strategy (Kate and I didn’t even have any idea how long we would be in China: maybe four years, we thought); it just seemed a modestly worthwhile and interesting project that would give me an opportunity to learn about China.

I needed an institutional base so I took the idea to the Asia Pacific Social Development Research Centre, attached to the Department of Social Administration at the City University of Hong Kong, suggesting that I would raise funds and write the content if they would publish, print, market and distribute the newsletter (also, from the third issue, taking subscription income.) They agreed; so I raised from Oxfam Hong Kong the princely sum of USD 10,000 to put together two pilot issues and I started work on the first of these, which was to concentrate on basic education, with a short overview of the sector written by a Hong Kong University professor, and profiles, compiled by me, of the work of more than a dozen international agencies in China.

Meanwhile, and even as I began to shape China Development Brief, the difficulty of writing about China was brought home to me by the rupture of an early and promising friendship. During a few weeks’ break in the UK, while in transit from Malawi to Hong Kong, we had met an older couple from Beijing at a dinner party in Edinburgh. Zhang Ling was a literature professor and translator and her husband, who I remember only as Old Yang, was a Communist veteran of the civil war who later worked for the state Xinhua news agency in Geneva. They were visiting Britain at the invitation of the Thomas Hardy Society. Zhang Ling’s father had been an eminent translator of Hardy and she eventually followed in his footsteps, in part, it seemed to me, to expiate a betrayal. For her teenage years were filled with Maoist fervour: she recalled feeling satisfaction at the suicide of her grandfather, unable at the time to see the man of rare vigour he had been and despising the petty capitalist and landlord he had managed to become; and, even more painfully, she recalled rifling her father’s desk looking for material to denounce to her Red Guard peers. Later, she ‘Criticised the Party’ at a mass meeting convened for precisely that purpose and, for her pains, was soon dispatched to spend the rest of her youth labouring in Xinjiang, in the far northwest, where she learned to hold her tongue but also taught herself English from a hidden cache of books. (Her spoken English was still halting, stilted and peppered with near-obsolete words like ‘rascal.’) Old Yang meanwhile also fell from ideological grace but, owing to his political record and good class background (his father drove trains), suffered the lesser exile of banishment to an obscure teaching post in a remote provincial college. It was nearly 20 years before they let him move back to Beijing and a marriage that came too late for children. It was sometimes hard to know how to take his acerbic commentaries, which were always delivered with a self-deprecating laugh as if nothing could be funnier than disappointment and strife.

In early 1995 I travelled from Hong Kong to spend Spring Festival with them in their apartment in Haidian, Beijing’s university district, where they led quiet, frugal lives setting aside all they could from Zhang Ling’s wage and derisory royalties in the hope of funding a trip to America some time in the future, a final outing into the world to sweeten their autumn years. During the days I explored the city on Old Yang’s bicycle, returning in the evenings to defrost my bones and listen to their stories. They took me to supper with old friends of theirs; to the Daoist White Cloud Temple where throngs of people passed through the pavilions at a rapid shuffle to improve their luck for the new lunar year by laying a stick of incense in front of the fat, gilt idols responsible for this or that department of human affairs; and to a Beijing Opera where, although the screeching delivery was pitched several octaves too high for my comfort, the plot was thick with high political and low sexual intrigue that still resonated down the centuries.

It was my first real trip to the mainland (I had once spent a day in Shenzhen with Apo Leung of Hong Kong’s Asia Monitor Resource Centre, ostensibly to look at working conditions in factories, although the nearest we got to this was standing outside the factory gates and hearing from Apo about how bad it was inside); and I was extraordinary privileged to sail into the lives of such erudite, kind and sadly wise people. I looked forward to developing the friendship; but I made a fatal mistake. I wrote a short sketch of my week in Beijing for a small literary journal, The London Magazine, and when it was published I sent them a copy together with a new Hardy biography, hand delivered by a Chinese colleague of Kate’s. Zhang and Yang were horrified, as I discovered more than a year later, after our move to Kunming, when I was back in Beijing for a conference. We met for dinner and they explained, with considerable embarrassment, that although what I had written was exceedingly excellent, someone official might see it and it could get them into trouble. They also suspected that the young woman who brought the gift to them was a spy; and were deeply troubled by the dangers inherent in my new, unauthorised publishing venture. I was convinced that this was mostly needless paranoia. I could easily imagine state security goons in London’s Chinese embassy scanning the British mainstream broadsheets; but not The London Magazine, an obscure journal read only by a few book publishers, agents and other literati; and the idea that the messenger might be a spy struck me as absurd. Yet while it was easy enough for me to believe that China was in recovery from all that, it was impossible for them; and by the end of the meal it was quite clear that they were too frightened to risk knowing me any longer. ‘Write about China after you leave.’ they urged me. Well, now I am.


[1] Population and import-export figures (in the following paragraph) come from G. B. Endacott’s 1958 ‘A History of Hong Kong’ (Oxford University Press, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 65, 253), citing (for population) an 1845 report by the then Hong Kong Registrar General.
[2]‘Pro Democracy Champion Fights for Local Leadership’ Gemini News, September 5 2005.

[3] For detailed insight into the development of Chinese philanthropy in Hong Kong see Elizabeth Sinn’s superb study, focusing on the Tung Wah group: ‘Power and Charity: A Chinese Merchant Elite in Colonial Hong Kong’ (Hong Kong University Press 2003.)

[4] Figures in this paragraph refer mainly to 1994 and are drawn from my April 7, 2005 Gemini article ‘Jockeying for Position in Hong Kong.’

[5] A Hong-Kong America Center, based in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, set out in the mid 1990s to create a Hong Kong philanthropy database as a prelude to work to ‘professionalise’ philanthropy in the territory and on the mainland. This project, alas, was never accomplished, and to my knowledge there is still no public listing of Hong Kong private donors. The Center did, however, publish Occasional Papers that, in general terms, described the nature of Chinese giving, chacterising it in the way I have described. See, eg, John J. Deeney’s ‘Chinese Philanthropy’ (Occasional Paper Series 4; Summer 1996; 34). Deeney, the Center’s then director, gives a similar picture of low-profile, personalized giving in ‘A Neglected Minority in a Neglected Field:The Emerging Role of Chinese American Philanthropy in U.S.-China Relations’ (in ‘The Expanding Roles of Chinese Americans in U.S.-China Relations’ Armonk, New York, 2002)

[6] Chang Tianle ‘Shanghai dances with NGOs’China Development Brief, November 8, 2006

[7] Hepatitis B, like AIDS, is transmitted by sexual contact or blood products, and was by the mid 1990s endemic in China, affecting 38% of children by four years of age according to a 1999 UN Common Country Assessment Report on Health in China. The report attributed this high prevalence to ‘unsafe injection and excessive injection for common illnesses during childhood;’ for antibiotics were frequently administered to children, sometimes re-using unsterilised needles, to treat common colds. By the late 1990s the government included Hepatitis B vaccination in childhood immunisation programmes.

[8] Philip’s book, ‘Reconstructing Christianity in China: K. H. Ting and the Chinese Church’ was published by Orbis in 2007.

[9] The Oxfam International federation was established in 1995. Some of is members (like Oxfam Canada) had long carried the Oxfam name, others (eg, NOVIB in the Netherlands, Community Aid Abroad in Australia) had long operated under their own names. At the time of writing, Oxfam International members (and date of founding) are: Great Britain (1942); Australia (1953); Netherlands (1956); Belgium (1964); Canada (1966); America (1970); Québec (1973); Hong Kong (1988); New Zealand (1991); Spain ( ); Germany ( ); France ( ); Japan (2003); Ireland (2004.) NGOs in Mexico and India are in the process of joining the federation.

[10] Compare, for example, Dianna Melrose’s 1985 book ‘Nicaragua: The Threat of a Good Example?’ with Duncan Green’s 2008 ‘From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World.’ The authors serve(d) respectively as Oxfam GB’s Policy Director and Head of Research, and both books were published by Oxfam.

[11] This sentence appears in ‘Changing Charity: The End of Total War,’ New Internationalist, Issue 228, February 1992. Black’s book (OUP 1992) was entitled ‘A Cause for Our Times: Oxfam: the First 50 Years.’

[12] Why not? I don’t know exactly, but Kate visited the place and found it empty and unused. This kind of thing was not uncommon since, especially in the health system, local authorities would enthusiastically request support to build new facilities even when they had no resources, or strategy, for their subsequent use.

[13] The International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders, which states that “Iodine deficiency is the single most common cause of preventable mental retardation and brain damage in the world,” notes that China has “moved from the world's biggest problem to a shining example of what can be achieved.” ( accessed January 19, 2009) The Word Bank provided a soft loan of USD 20 million for the National Iodine Deficiency Disorder Control Programme and several UN agencies provided technical assistance. In my view, essential ingredients in this success were that the programme had a specific and limited aim, consistent with policy desire for ‘birth quality,’ and specific, technocratic solutions: technology transfer to the National Salt Industry Corporation and, in some places iodination of irrigation waters.

[14] The claim was repeated in a January 1996 Human Rights Watch-Asia report, ‘Death by Default,’ which found ‘compelling evidence’ that deaths in Child Welfare Institutes were ‘the result of a deliberate policy to minimise China’s population of abandoned children.’

[15] ‘China Human Development Report 1999: Transition and the State’ (p. 51), UNDP, China Financial and Economic Publishing House (2000)

[16] Significant others were The Philip Hayden Foundation, Operation Blessing and The China Care Foundation (all US-based) and the UK-based Good Rock Foundation and Care for Children.

[17] This story was corroborated by one of the ‘foreign Christians’ who also contacted China Development Brief. There was nothing we could do to help, beyond encouraging the private orphanage founder to appeal to the Central Ministry to intervene—or, failing that, finding a Chinese reporter to write up the story. I doubt if she ever did the former, for Chinese people almost invariably want a personal introduction as an entry point to ‘the system’ (we, being unofficial, were not able to provide one and without it she would have had little chance of reaching anyone in authority); and we never heard of the case being reported in local media.

[18] Office of Children’s Issues, U.S. Department of State Accessed January 20, 2009

[19] The US-based Half the Sky Foundation and Grace Children’s Foundation are notable examples of charities formed by adoptive parents to benefit children remaining in China; Holt International, a large adoption agency, created a free-standing non-profit organisation to carry out similar programmes.

[20] Junhao Hong ‘The Internationalization of Television in China: The Evolution of Ideology, Society, and Media since the Reform’ Praeger, 1998, p. 87

[21] For a sketch of the historical development of philanthropy in China (drawing on more scholarly work) see my ‘Richesse Oblige and So Does the State: Philanthropy and Equity in the People's Republic of China,’ which appears in ‘Diaspora Philanthropy and Equitable Development in China and India’ (Geithner P F, Chen L C, Johnson PD eds., 2005, Harvard University Press.)

[22] For example, several articles of the 1991 Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons (which sets out a progressive—but, like so much Chinese law, largely aspirational rather than actually enforced—agenda for social inclusion), state that ‘social forces’ have a responsibility to assist with community based rehabilitation, special education, etc. A China Legal Aid Foundation was established in 1997 to raise funds for providing legal aid services. Even after the passage of the 2003 Legal Aid Law, which nominally recognized citizens’ right to free legal aid, the Foundation continued to collect funds because budgetary allocations to legal were hopelessly insufficient to meet the law’s implicit pledge of state support.

[23] Save the Children UK’s London headquarters made a modest, annual allocation to the China programme from unrestricted income (which came mainly from individual supporters) to cover some core operating costs and allow for project development and design. The great majority of operational funding, however, had to be raised from institutional donors: foreign governments, foundations and corporations.

[24] For a detailed account of China’s management of international aid flows see David Zweig’s ‘Internationalizing China: Domestic Interests And Global Linkages’ (Cornell University Press, 2002)

[25] In 2000-2001, while compiling China Development Brief’s ‘250 Chinese NGOs’ directory, a researcher visited a couple of ‘farmers associations’ listed by CANGOs as among their Chinese member organisations. These entities turned out to be run by local government officials who, they said, had been advised by CANGOs to describe themselves as an NGO because that would help with obtaining foreign funding.