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September 4, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright September 4, 2009 Daniel A. Bell. Used by permission.


China, as everybody knows, is not a politically free country. There are constraints on political activity and many social critics fall afoul of the system. The foreign press often reports on those cases, leading to the impression that it’s impossible to do any good outside of official channels. What is less well known, however, is that some areas of social life that were once politically taboo – such as the plight of migrant workers and environmental concerns – are now openly discussed in the Chinese media. There are also a growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that do good work in those areas.

One such NGO in Beijing is called Xiezuozhe 协作者 (Facilitator) which came into being in the spring of 2003, when the SARS crisis hit Beijing. Today, it focuses mainly on the plight of migrant workers in large Chinese cities. Its methods are transparent and non-confrontational and it aims to be a constructive force for social change. The NGO gets funding from Chinese philanthropists and large Western companies, and a couple of years ago I joined my wife – a Chinese national who works for one of their donors – on an outing in a poor district in the outskirts of Beijing. I was impressed by what I saw – highly intelligent and sensitive young people clearly moved by the plight of migrant workers, listening to the workers and their children with respect and no hint of condescension, and thinking of practical ways of ameliorating their situation. So when I heard that they might be looking for English teachers to help with lessons for the children of migrant workers in the small lanes (hutong) of central Beijing, I jumped at the opportunity. My 14-year-old son Julien was also willing to help, and we volunteered as a father-son team.

We contacted the head of Xiezuozhe, who eventually put us in touch with a sweet and intelligent 23-year-old volunteer named Wang Lihong, a recent graduate in social work from Changsha University. She said that we could do four sessions, each one lasting an hour and a half, with about 15 kids aged 9-13. It was my son’s first teaching experience, and I had never taught English, so we planned four themes in advance. Wang Lihong wanted to know more details of what we would teach and how we would do it, and I wasn’t used to such “interventionist” methods but I did my best to explain.