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Meng Han, October 11, 2017     Continued from Part One   Governmental Dysfunction and NGO Work In our time of great changes, the term “NGO”—when applied to our Service Center—inevitably has some political connotation. NGO workers have nothing to do with any criminal activities, but have everything to do with governmental dysfunction. It is precisely because of this that we drew attention from society. It is also because of this that the media, scholars, and workers have taken an interest in us and observed our work. As a matter of fact, it is inevitable that NGOs will impact the government in any country. The core issue is in what manner NGOs are making an impact. In my opinion, the involvement of the Service Center […]


Meng Han, October 10, 2017   On December 3, 2015, Guangdong police raided a series of labor NGOs in the Pearl River Delta area, detaining several NGO leaders and activists. Among them was Meng Han (孟晗), a then 50-year-old experienced labor activist and an intern at Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center in Guangzhou. Meng Han had served nine months in jail for leading a rights struggle in between 2013 and 2014, and this time, he was tried and sentenced to twenty-one months in prison. Last month he was released and shortly afterward he posted “Notes From Prison” (《狱中札记》) on social media. He was subsequently questioned by police and given warnings. “We are innocent,” he told the court in 2013 and his words still ring true, […]


When you hear the words “migrant worker,” what kind of person comes to mind? Are they young or middle age? Are they poor? Are they educated? While “migrant worker” seems at first to describe a fairly uniform group of lowly occupations – factory and construction workers, aiyis, taxi drivers, etc. Their backgrounds are actually quite diverse, and the term covers a far larger group of people than we might expect. So large in fact that over 55% of those between 14-35 living in Shanghai are counted as “migrants.” Many of these people are ambitious college graduates entering a workplace with little need of higher education degrees. As a colleague from a Chinese charity recently told me, a large number of people working at factories like […]


While China has raised hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty in the last 60 years, there are still 128 million people living on less that $1 per day (World Bank defines poverty as less than $1.25/day). This is actually 100 million more people than 2010, because the gov’t radically revised the definition of poverty which was hiding the true scale of the problem. While it might be tempting to “blame” poverty on the poor, or urge leaders to serve the people, or throw our hands up in despair, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s recent book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, offers more practical advice. Instead of simply judging anti-poverty campaigns on whether or not they […]


China’s tomb raiders laying waste to thousands of years of history, by Tania Branigan. Soaring prices offered by collectors and lax monitoring of China’s thousands of historical sites have led to grave robbing on a massive scale. One researcher estimates that 95% of Chinese tombs have been plundered, and that without sufficient protection it could all be lost in the next 10 years. Chinese authorities and villagers clash over mosque – From around mid-December there have been a number of crackdowns on religious groups in China, with Buddhist, Muslisms and Christians all being effected. This time the clash happened in a Hui region, which is unusual, since Hui have traditionally been tolerated. The children left behind by China’s migrant workers – great photos and an […]


Dear Readers, I just wanted to let you know that I am starting work on a book. At the moment it is in the very early stages, and I am writing this open letter partially to put pressure on myself to complete it. The book will be similar to the blog in some ways, as I will discuss a variety of topics that have already been mentioned briefly here including: education, rural life, issues facing migrant workers, the environment, and also a touch of politics, history and economics. I am also planning on a few topics that I have a closer connection with, like the difficulties facing disabled people in China and the Rape of Nanking. These topics will be presented in more depth than on the blog, […]


One of my first posts on this blog focused on the idea of being a waiguoren (外国人), an “outside country person”, and the fact that a foreigner can never be fully accepted in China. Today though, we’ll be looking at the idea of a waicunren (外村人), an “outside village person”, and how it presents new challenges in an increasingly mobile China. Along with your name and age, a person’s hometown is considered an important part of their identity. This comes out of the fact that for thousands of years a person’s village in many cases mostly consisted of their extended family members. In a traditional village one would expect to find only a few family names with lineages tracing their history in a single place back hundreds […]


Over the past few days I’ve pointed out some of the major issues revolving around the hukou system. So I thought it was important to establish why it is that the hukou system won’t be changing anytime soon, despite the ongoing discussions of how to change it. Surprisingly the hukou system is not something that was dreamed up by the communist party as a way to control the masses (which is how it sounds to most Americans I’ve talked with), it is actually a modified version of household registration that has been a part of China for thousands of years. The original system was also used to restrict the movement of people, and to remove “troublemakers”. The modern system in the 1950’s was used as […]


At a conference I attended a few months ago, a Chinese professor described rural villagers as “sacrificing their youth, for the sake of the cities”. It struck a chord with me as I pictured the rural villages I had grown familiar with during my bike rides down dirt roads in Guangxi. Every village was full of children and grandparents, but was missing nearly everyone from 20-60 years old. It’s as if this entire group left to work in the cities, giving their best years to a develop a region where they cannot reap the full rewards of their work. While the left behind children are a pressing topic of discussion, the other family members are no less effected by the social hole left by migrant […]


One of the most concerning stories this week was a proposed legal change that would make secret detentions legal. This would be a huge step backwards for human rights in China, and would provide a shield for the gov’t when they are criticized by citizen groups and foreign leaders. Perhaps the best known case of secret detention came earlier this year with the arrest of Ai Weiwei. He was held for nearly 90 days in a secret location for “economic crimes”. It was never made clear why he was not held in a normal prison. Ai Weiwei reflected on the nature of Beijing’s oppressive gov’t this week in a piece for Newsweek that is well worth reading. This reflection by Ai Weiwei came at a […]


Modern China is home to many phrases that seem to exist in few other parts of the world. Phrases like: Cancer Village, Blue-sky Days, and Gutter Oil. Perhaps the most troubling of these is “Left Behind…”, because the full damage is much harder to see. This phrase refers to children, wives and elderly parents who are left in the countryside while the productive generation heads to the cities to look for work, and captures a few of the issues we’ll be exploring over the next few days. Parents in rural China face a difficult choice once they have decided to look for work in a place beyond their hukou status: should they bring their child with them? If they bring their child with them as […]


Yesterday we looked briefly at the life of a typical migrant worker, today we will be exploring the limits of the hukou system. It is impossible to discuss the issue of migrant workers without understand what exactly a hukou (户口) is. At the most basic level, a hukou is a legal document that specifies which village/town/city you are a resident of. So when I use the term “migrant worker” I am meaning a person who works in a place outside of what their hukou specifies, and is coming from a less developed region to a more prosperous one to look for work. What is a Hukou? A hukou for one of China’s eastern cities can be an incredibly valuable thing, since your residency determines which schools you […]


In China, “migrant worker” has a very different meaning than it does in most other countries. Here it refers to people who have left their hometowns in search of work (usually on the East Coast). Currently this group makes up nearly 20% of China’s total population, although it is hard to say exactly how many people work outside of their hometowns for a part of the year. Over the next few days we’ll be exploring issues related to this topic. Migrant workers often work the least desirable jobs in China’s major cities, like garbage collectors, window washers, and sweatshop workers, etc. They accept meager wages, because farming offers little or no hope of moving up in society, and these jobs add just a tiny bit […]


Last Train Home claims to be a documentary about migrant workers heading home for Spring Festival, but it is so much more than that. The director opted to focus on a single family, whose parents work in Guangdong province, while their children are looked after by their grandmother in rural Sichuan. In happens to cover the one Spring Festival that almost didn’t happen because of the massive winter storms that swept China in 2008, and depicts the anxiety that many felt. As one the father says, “If you can’t spend Spring Festival with your family, than what is the point of living”. The daughter in the film was the most interesting character I thought. After failing to achieve academic success in high school, she drops […]


This is part of a series, it starts here with my trip to Huaxi village The whole experience raised more questions about Huaxi’s socialist success than it answered. Most of the Chinese people I have talked with know about the village, are quick to repeat that it is the richest village in China, but I’m still stuck on how exactly it became so rich. I have a few different theories, which as usual, I’m happy to share with you. The Government has paid for the whole thing. Or at least that was my initial reaction. After all, how could it possibly be that simply through hard work and “advanced” agricultural techniques that a village could possibly get rich enough to build all of these villas? […]


Yesterday we saw that China’s farmers occupy the lowest rung of Chinese society. Today we’ll be looking at why China’s farmers are also at the bottom economically, as we try to answer the question, How poor are Chinese farmers? Officially the average rural income is 5,919rmb, which is about $900. That’s well above the World Bank’s poverty measure of $1/day. However I’m skeptical of these official numbers. A few months ago I helped the charity I work with edit their annual report and found the annual per capita income for some of China’s least developed areas. Now keeping in mind that this charity is working in some of China’s poorest areas, it is still surprising to see that none of these villages were closer than […]


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