Must private charity have official blessing?

Must private charity have official blessing?
Must private charity have official blessing?
Posted on 2012-06-19

On June 11, 2012, China Central Television anchor Cui Yongyuan (崔永元) wrote angrily on his Sina Weibo account that the official response from education authorities in Hunan province to a training session for rural Hunan teachers organized by Cui Yongyuan’s charity fund was: “[We are] not opposed, not in support, and not participating.” In response to these “three No’s”, Cui gave his own furious assessment of education authorities in Hunan: “No effort, no principle, no face!” The story quickly became the focus of a debate over the relationship between the government and charity work. Some criticized Hunan authorities. Others criticized Cui Yongyuan, saying his criticism of authorities had gone too far — or that there was no sense in his seeking out the authorities in the first place.

By nature, I don’t like to jump into the fray. Seldom do I play the spectator when this or that debate rages. So when CCTV anchor Cui Yongyuan denounced the “three No’s” he received from Hunan education authorities in response to his proposed charity training program for teachers, I didn’t pay much attention. When I read subsequent pieces critical of Cui by Guo Yukuan (郭宇宽) and Bin Yingjie (魏英杰), however, I felt I had to make my views known.

First let me talk about the experiences I’ve had myself doing community teaching (支教) that are similar to those of Cui.

One event I took part in was called the “Candle Movement” (燃烛行动), and was organized by Southern Weekly, China Ping’an (中国平安), the Pingxing Charity (平行公益) and the website Healthy Life Ensures in March 2008. The goal of the project was to help substitute teachers who had been discharged before they were formally employed [by the government]. We offered assistance of 5,000 yuan to older teachers who had served in probationary roles for ten years or more and whose families were in a dire financial state. For younger teachers we offered basic professional training in areas like farming, forestry and animal husbandry, helping them find ways to transition their livelihoods.


[ABOVE: Celebrity CCTV anchor Cui Yongyuan, at the center of the latest debate over the role of charity in China -- and how exactly citizens should engage with issues that concern them.]

Our limited resources could only be applied selectively. In 2008 and 2009 we focused on Weiyuan County (渭源县) in Guizhou province, and in 2010 we focused on the Guizhou county of Liping (黎平县). The “Candle Movement” went ahead smoothly and successfully.

Last year over Spring Festival, I took part in a “Candle Movement” event Shaanxi province. There were three of us [from Southern Weekend] along with another journalist from Shaanxi.

We went first to pay our respects to the head of the local county education office. Paying our respects was of course essential, otherwise we wouldn’t possibly have been able even to obtain the list of probationary teachers in the area that would allow us to begin our charity work. If we didn’t have the support of the authorities and instead went directly to the towns and villages (town and village education offices have already been disbanded, management happening directly through the principals of core local schools), no one would have had anything to do with us.

Even though prior to our trip we introduced ourselves to provincial education authorities and to local county-level China Red Cross representatives, stressing again and again that we wanted to help out, not to “cause trouble,” the education director remained wary. The fact that we had brought hundreds of thousands of yuan to dole out to dismissed teachers was no threat whatsoever to his political rank and standing. But he had once had a teacher petition at the provincial level, and even though that matter had long ago been settled, he feared inviting further potential trouble.

Getting nowhere with the education director, we made contact with two deputy directors of the local county China Red Cross (because our project had received the support of the China Red Cross) and prepared to visit an adjacent county. The deputy directors quickly contacted the director (typically the person in local areas across China who handles everything), and the director (also the county Party secretary, as it happened) directed education authorities and various departments to support our movement. The education director didn’t dare to obstruct us then, of course.

So next we chose a couple of towns in which to investigate the situation with respect to former substitute [or non-official hire] teachers. Former local education officials and teachers were very much in support of our efforts, and they assisted us in locating those in need of assistance.

We had to make sure the money made it into the hands of those who most needed it, so this process of confirmation was absolutely necessary, and we could not have done it without the cooperation of local authorities. In fact, not all those appearing on the list of substitute teachers provided by provincial education authorities were actually teachers, but had worked as cooks or in other positions. There were also some former teachers who had not been terminated but had left voluntarily for personal or family reasons.

Other Party and government departments in the county were all very much in support of the efforts of the “Candle Movement.” The local Party school offered free facilities for the conduct of training sessions. The agricultural office provided instructors for skills training. The former teachers who took part in our program were all very happy, and they had no intent to “cause trouble.” Never once did they voice their complaints to us.

Let’s move on then to Cui Yongyuan’s “rural teachers training” program (乡村教师培训). Cui’s plan was to select 100 teachers from Hunan to go to Beijing for training. This couldn’t possibly happen without the agreement of education authorities in Hunan province. If Cui’s program were to sidestep provincial education authorities and go directly to the counties, these lower-level officials would be in a tight spot. And without direct approval from local education authorities, few school principals would dare have their teachers attend. Finally, even if teachers were quite eager for the opportunity to go to Beijing and expand their horizons, they wouldn’t dare run off to Beijing without approval from their school principals — even though they’re on summer break.

For authorities, there is the added concern of what kind of place Beijing is. What if these teachers run amuck? There isn’t just the risk that teachers might take past grievances to petition officials in the capital — there is the additional risk that they might talk to journalists. In this day and age, what office at what level anywhere can say for certainty they don’t have ugly secrets hiding in their closets, just waiting to get out?

Clearly, education authorities in Hunan feel uneasy about Cui Yongyuan, a man with a reputation for telling it like it is. Cui says his project has been frustrated at every turn by local authorities in Hunan.

I believe in the words of Chinese poet Hu Shi (胡适), that the struggle for one’s own rights is struggle for the right of the whole nation. And I don’t think Cui Yongyuan was at all out of line when he accused Hunan education authorities of showing “no effort, no principle and no face” in their response to his training program.

What did they mean when they said they “don’t oppose” the training program? What reason could they have for opposing a program in which people pay to help train teachers in their area? They seem to suggest that they have the right to oppose it in the first place, as though Cui should be grateful for their restraint. When someone wants to do a good thing, on what basis would you “not support” it?

But some of the criticism of Cui Yongyuan has itself been a bit off base. Guo Yukuan suggested that if “education authorities take the lead in organizing teacher training, then it will definitely have a very thick official coloring to it.” When did Cui Yongyuan ever talk about having education authorities “take the lead in organizing” the training? What he’s looking for is the approval of the local authorities in carrying out the training to begin with.

Guo also suggested that he and some friends had done training a number of years back for teachers in [privately-run] schools for the children of migrant workers, and that they had never considered going to education authorities for approval. But for education authorities teachers at migrant schools aren’t even afforded the status of “temporary workers” (临时工) — they’re just languishing in obscurity. The comparison of Cui’s training program to Guo’s for migrant school teachers doesn’t stand. And to suggest Cui is just an “imperial envoy of charity” (公益钦差) is unfair.

Bin Yingjie’s views as expressed in his piece, “Cui Should Understand that the Government Not Participating is Encouragement for Non-Governmental Charity” (小崔要明白,政府不参与就是支持民间公益), are quite frankly impractical, completely divorced from the prevailing reality in China today.

Generally speaking, education authorities should “support” teacher training done on a charity basis, and they should be happy to provide assistance for such work. We cannot mistake ideals for reality. As everyone knows, the situation in China right now is “big government and a small society” (大政府、小社会), a “strong government and a weak society” (强政府,弱社会). Non-government organizations and charities are now in their infancy stage, and its not always true that they can effect change without the support and encouragement of the authorities.

Let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that China already has a full-fledged civil society.

This is a translated and edited version of an opinion piece originally appearing in Chinese in the Southern Metropolis Daily.

[For more coverage of the recent Cui Yongyuan charity debate, see the June 16 special topic page at QQ.com]

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