From gulag to do-gooder central

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:00am

Mention the words activism and Qinghai in the same breath and the first thought likely to come to mind is prisoners.

The sparsely populated high-altitude region in the west is known as the nation's gulag province because of its number of jails and labour camps holding all types of prisoners, including many political dissidents.

But in the past few years, Qinghai has acquired a new reputation.

The province of 5.2 million people is now booming with charitable activity. The China Development Brief, a Beijing-based publication that covers developments in civil society, says Qinghai is now home to more than a dozen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and countless do-gooders.

Their activities range from distributing free solar cookers to desolate villages, to becoming negotiators between the government and yak and sheep herders being forced off traditional grazing lands.

What makes Qinghai's philanthropy even more special is that local people from diverse social and economic backgrounds are leading the effort.

The base of this social movement is the provincial capital of Xining.

Sitting in a friend's house drinking cups of potent barley wine are two of Qinghai's philanthropic pioneers, Li Dechun and Nyendak. Mr Li is a 35-year-old orthopaedic specialist at the provincial medical college and a member of the Tu minority group, while Nyendak is a 70-year-old retired Tibetan police officer.

With the help of an American English teacher in Xining, the two have been able to raise thousands of yuan from foreign embassies in Beijing and international foundations to implement dozens of projects in their respective communities since the mid-1990s.

'We did this because we wanted to help our people. When you get older, you realise how important it is to preserve your culture,' said Mr Li, who helped build schools, bridges and wells for his home community in northeastern Qinghai during his days off.

Nyendak helped found four Tibetan schools in impoverished villages across the region. He said he did it because he was worried his native Tibetan language would die out.

'The children need to remember the language. If they can speak Chinese and Tibetan, they will have better opportunities,' he said.

At Laguma village in Hualong county, 100km southeast of Xining, about 50 Tibetan children play outside a new two-storey elementary school which Nyendak helped build with a 310,000 yuan grant from the Canada Fund.

The school, which features traditional Tibetan architecture, was built by local villagers and has a staff of six teachers, five of whom are Tibetan.

Nyendak said he led this project after he heard the village's previous school was too small to accommodate all its children and that the nearest larger school was far away in a Muslim-populated village. The Tibetan parents did not want their children, particularly their daughters, going to the school. As a result, many of the girls were forced to stay at home.

But thanks to Nyendak, more than 100 Tibetan children, including the girls, are now receiving education. The previous school had only 27 students.

'We are so thankful for Nyendak's help. He is a hero of our community,' said the local village chief.

Minhe Hui and Tu autonomous county, around 120km east of Xining, is the home of the Sanchuan Development Association, founded by local schoolteacher Zhu Yongzhong.

With funds provided by international donors, the 50-plus members of the group help poor villagers increase their income by building greenhouses and pig sties. They also help to build wells and distribute solar food cookers.

Mr Zhu said he started the group because he had grown up in harsh poverty.

In Yushu county in the heart of the Three Rivers Source plateau in southern Qinghai is the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association. Founded by Tibetan Haxi Zhaxi Duojie with the financial support of a Tibetan businessman, the 100-strong group is helping the government develop environmental protection plans by acting as mediators between local officials and herders.

The association also organises back-to-nature tours for Beijing-based college students in the summer.

'We believe that any work done in the area should be done by the local people. We Tibetans have lived on this land for centuries. We know the land and we know how to solve the problems,' said the founder.

Experts said there were many reasons for Qinghai's burgeoning civil society. One factor is the traditionally strong community bond in rural minority areas. Many of the NGOs and activists are members of Qinghai's 44 ethnic groups, which make up close to half the province's population.

Another is the region's enormous need for basic services. Qinghai is one of the country's poorest provinces with around 50 per cent of its women illiterate and more than 25 per cent of its population classified as living in extreme poverty.

These pressing needs have attracted the interest of the international donor community. One of the leading foundations in the area is headed by Andrea Soros Colombel, who once taught English in the region and is the daughter of billionaire financier George Soros.

The editor of China Development Brief, Nick Young, said these factors had forced the government to allow activism because it lacked the resources to meet basic needs.

'Delivering services in an area as vast and empty as Qinghai is extremely difficult. There are many things the government can't do. So when local people organise resources to build schools and wells, there is an enormous welcome at the grassroots level,' he said.

While local cadres want money raised by the NGOs to go through them, the groups said they had yet to be forbidden from doing their work.

Some organisations said the authorities were actively encouraging them to do more.

Mr Zhu of the Sanchuan Development Association was still being paid his monthly teacher's salary of a few hundred yuan while running his group full-time because school authorities realised the importance of his work.

Haxi Zhaxi Duojie of the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association said local cadres were encouraging his group to do more to solve the region's ecological problems.

'The officials think we can do everything. Their expectations for us are too high,' he said.

Mr Young noted that many herders had moved into small trades, and beggars and sex workers had started to appear in many counties. 'Old ways are under pressure. The new is only just taking off,' he said. 'Qinghai's nascent NGOs will have plenty of work on their hands.'