Fighting for those on the outside
In 1985, former union worker Meng Weina, 57, selected Guangzhou for what would become the nation's first NGO serving mentally disabled people. Today that organisation, Huiling, has chapters in 11 cities helping more than 1,000 people. But despite the success and relative fame of Huiling, Meng says her NGO still faces many challenges, and that services needed for those with mental disabilities are still in short supply.
What prompted you to start an NGO serving the mentally disabled?
I had just turned 30 and was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I had worked several years with the union of a state-owned furniture factory and had seen the needs of many families. I realised I wanted to help more people, and then, by chance, came across an article by Deng Pufang , the son of Deng Xiaoping [who was crippled during the Cultural Revolution]. It stressed humanitarianism and the need to help disabled people. The article moved me greatly.
I started telling friends I wanted to do something for disabled people, and a colleague said I should meet her mentally disabled child. I went with them to see a doctor, who was very excited to hear about my intentions. As a famous 'when all else fails' doctor, he said he had at least 500 mentally disabled people sent to him, but there was nothing medical science could do for them.
I hardly knew what mental retardation meant at the time, but I asked for help from my friends, and we started getting in touch with the families of the 500. Within days, dozens came to me, crying, kneeling on the ground asking for help.
Meanwhile, another friend helped me get in touch with charities in Hong Kong that had experience serving the mentally disabled. In the end we picked Caritas as a partner, which gave us not only financial support but also invaluable training and advice. But we soon developed differences in opinions: as a highly professional organisation, they said we should accept only 30 students in the beginning, but on the opening day of school we had 96. When parents are crying and begging you, what can you do?
How is Huiling different from similar NGOs?
We used to have live-in facilities, but when we started in Beijing 10 years ago we decided to try a community model. We decided to build smaller schools or workshops within communities, and we encouraged members to live with their families, whom we regularly communicate with as well. For those who are orphans, we also create 'families' for them by grouping several members together and appointing a social worker as the parent, so every day they could go back to a home.
We are constantly trying to innovate. Take Beijing as an example - one of our biggest donors is an international travel agency, which helped us rent a courtyard for our operation. In return, they promote a half-day visit to our centre as an activity for tourists, and these tourists have lunch with us, enjoy a performance by our members and sometimes learn how to make dumplings with them. The tourists may also purchase handicrafts, paintings or calligraphy made by our members. Our members are always very excited by these visits, and they receive a salary at the end of the day, as well as 70 per cent of the sale proceeds from any work they created.
What's the biggest problem facing Huiling now?
Each of our branches operates as a separate entity and government support varies from place to place. Ten of our operations have support from a local government department and have been registered as a 'social organisation', but our Beijing operation still hasn't managed to obtain such a status. Last year we applied 58 times, and still we failed.
Our government partner is usually the local Disabled Persons' Federation, but when we arrived in Beijing we complained about a representative the federation sent to help us, whom we suspected of mishandling finances, and since then we've been blacklisted.
Without social-organisation status we can only register as a company and therefore have to pay taxes like a normal company, and people who donate to us do not enjoy tax benefits. As rent continues to go up, foreign aid slows and donors now see China as a wealthy country, we are struggling in Beijing.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing mentally disabled people in China today?
One of the biggest problems is that if they have serious mental retardation no organisation wants to take them in. If they have mild retardation they want to live and work like normal people, but organisations that are too institutionalised are not suitable for them.
Prejudice due to lack of awareness is no longer a major issue, at least not in big cities. The cases you see in the news where mentally disabled children are sold to work in slave-like conditions are not due to prejudice but plain maliciousness and intent to exploit. The fact they enslave the mentally disabled shows they realise they have enormous work potential.
The government has been talking about giving NGOs a bigger role under a new 'social management' policy. Do you think the environment for NGOs is becoming more relaxed?
I think China is big, and every official and every place is different. The good thing about the new policy on 'social management' is that it seems, at least conceptually, that the authorities now accept that NGOs could be friends, and not just potential instigators of a colour revolution. However, sometimes we are still seen as competitors to government service providers. If you look at some of the biggest NGOs for disabled people in Beijing, not all are able to register with the Disabled Persons' Federation.
I was told recently by state security officers that we didn't receive a subsidy this year because I touched on something 'political'. I don't know what is political. I wrote to the State Administration for Religious Affairs saying one of our staff members, also a friend of a Chinese-anointed bishop, was involved in corruption. I'm a Catholic with the state-sanctioned church, and it's my responsibility to point out wrongs to be fixed.
Therefore, back to your question, I'm not particularly hopeful about changes. A lot of things boil down to the system. It's still not a system that encourages different opinions.