Thoughts from the front
Thoughts from the Front is a collection of posts by members and associates of China Vision, reflecting their experiences and thoughts about disability, China, and related topics.
About the writer:
Stephen Hallett is the Chairperson of China Vision. He has lived and worked in China since the early 1980s, studying, teaching, making documentaries and - since 1999 - working with people with disabilities. He thinks that his own visual impairment has given him a different perspective from that of most Westerners living in East Asia.
Little Green Men?
On a cool autumnal afternoon with the threat of rain in the air, I sat on a concrete bollard by the side of the road on south Beijing’s Changchun Street waiting for Lili and a friend to come out of public convenience. A group of middle-aged to elderly men sat on adjacent bollards, chatting and passing the time of day. Seeing me they asked in a friendly way where I came from. “I’m British,” I said.
“Well you’ve got another wave of COVID there right?” one of the men said with a laugh.
“You guys have made a bit of a mess of it,” said another. “But we’ve got it sorted in China.”
All the men burst into slightly ironic laughter. It was hard to know whether they were being serious or jesting. Responding to their friendly mood I ventured, “Well you may have got it sorted now, but it was China that started the pandemic, and now you’ve got the rest of us in a right mess!”
“We started it? That’s just an assumption. Nobody has really proved it,” the first man said, still friendly.
“Of course it started in China,” said another rather portly guy in a brown cardigan, “But we’ve also dealt with it more effectively than the Americans.”
This was something on which we could all agree. But beneath the remark lay deeper, more contradictory emotions.
Another man chimed in, “My niece is in Wisconsin. She’s been working at the university there for seven years. She said they’re fine where she is.”
This love-hate relationship with America is deeply rooted in the minds of most people here. So many Chinese citizens now have family ties in the US or still aspire to study there. Even the Trump debacles and the trade war between China and America haven’t completely soured the human ties. As many commentators have remarked, China and the US - whether friend or foe - are two sides of a global equation.
However I think that Trumpian isolationism, Xi-style chauvinism, the wilful flouting of human rights on both sides, and now a global pandemic whose consequences are still unknown, are straining relations in a way we haven’t seen for decades. Covid-19 is testing the health systems, political structures and social norms of many countries and showing up deep-seated fallibilities.
On balance the Chinese system seems to be more resilient to this pandemic than many of us had expected. The US, the UK and many other “western” countries seem to be struggling to balance post-liberal values and personal freedoms with the urgent need for timely, informed, well-coordinated state intervention. This doesn’t seem to be just a matter of authoritarianism versus democracy: other countries in East Asia – South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore - with varying degrees of freedom and democracy, all seem to have handled the virus more effectively than America, Brazil and the UK. There seems to be something in the more communal nature of East Asian societies which make them more resilient to major crises. China’s millennial struggles with floods, droughts and other natural and manmade disasters – what Karl Wittfogel called “hydraulic civilisation” – has to some extent resulted in the collective, authoritarian society we see today.
During the 1990s, when the Chinese economy was booming and we were becoming increasingly aware of the strains on the ecosystem, I became deeply concerned about the environment and co-produced a series of documentaries for Channel 4 called “Tears of the Dragon”. Travelling around the country we told stories of deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and the destruction of ancient ecosystems and sustainable agricultural practices in favour of breakneck industrialisation. At that time GDP was God and everything else was expendable. A few years later (2001) American writer Judy Shapiro wrote “Mao’s War Against Nature”, a fascinating book that showed how Mao reinterpreted the ancient saying ren ding sheng tian, (the will of man prevails over nature”) to fuel his assault on China’s wildernesses, traditional values and even the laws of nature. This was the ideology which underpinned many of China’s policies until recently.
Mao’s extremism, I think, should be seen as an aberration as it violated the deep-seated pragmatism which has informed most Chinese rulers up to the present. The Covid-19 outbreak was itself the result of the destruction of ecosystems and the broken balance between humanity and the natural world. This can be traced back to a combination of Maoist policy and the avarice generated by unfettered market forces. Yet when facing existential threats, it seems that China’s default response is to veer towards pragmatism and collective response. This contrasts sharply with the more countries like the US and Brazil, where individualism and self-destruction seem to rule the day.
These thoughts are all deeply challenging, especially to those of us for whom universal values and human rights are at the core of our work. Disability rights, inclusion, non-discrimination and equality are all concepts that first emerged through the struggles of disabled people and other oppressed communities in the US and Europe. Many disabled people in China have now internalised these concepts, even though they are often at variance with more traditional views. Yet I feel now that the long-term development of disability rights, whether in East Asia, America, Europe or elsewhere, must involve a combination of social activism and state provision. Like the environment and the pandemic, neither the market nor libertarian values will be sufficient to solve the big problems facing humanity.
My discussion with the men on the street corner ended in hilarity. I put in, in jest, “If the virus didn’t come from Wuhan, then maybe it came from little green men from Mars.”
“I think that’s a distinct possibility!” said the man in the brown cardy. “At least that’s something we can all agree on!”
Beijing, 1st October 2020
One summer evening in 2007 a friend and I were walking back to my flat in a hutong, not far from the Drum Tower in the heart of old Beijing. Passing the entrance to an old courtyard house I noticed a little boy in red shorts and a white T-shirt squatting in the doorway together with a floppy-eared grey rabbit. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight and his rabbit seemed very large next to him. Being rather fond of rabbits I squatted down and said: “That’s a lovely rabbit. Is it your pet?” Quite unperturbed the boy continued stroking the rabbit’s ears and said earnestly, “Yes, he’s mine.”
“What do you feed him on?” I asked.
“Vegetables, rice, meat… any left-overs.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “I like rabbits, because I used to have one a long time ago. He was called Genghis Khan…”
The boy looked at me inscrutably, then said, “Yes, I know. He died.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“My granny told me.”
That was the end of the encounter. The boy picked up his rabbit, pushed open the peeling red door and went inside, leaving me in the street feeling a bit perplexed. Did the boy really know that I’d had a rabbit twenty years earlier when I was teaching at a Beijing’s Agricultural University? Genghis was a rabbit with attitude who loved eating carpets and chasing cats. But he sadly died of lung disease when I went away on holiday and left him in the care of a colleague. Kind students then presented me with another rabbit whom we named Kublai Khan. Both Genghis and Kublai were eventually laid to rest in the grounds of the Old Summer Palace. I had an odd feeling that this boy, or his mysterious granny, knew all about my rabbity past. But how could they have known? Twenty years had elapsed and this was a completely different part of the city. I’d never seen that boy before. And to add to the mystery I saw neither him nor his rabbit ever again.
I started fantasising that maybe this boy was actually an incarnation of Nezha, the boy-god of Beijing, who used to perform miracles and zipped around on wheels of fire. That was a surreal time, both in my life and in the life of the city. Against the backdrop of a city being demolished and rebuilt for the Beijing Olympics, I was trying to set up seemingly impossible projects, working with amazing young disabled people who wanted to challenge generations of discrimination. City planners were reinventing Beijing, crazed architects were littering it with bizarre and ugly megaliths, farmland was being put under concrete in the name of the Olympics… and meanwhile some people on the fringes of society - sexual minorities, disabled people, migrant labourers… were beginning to demand their rights. Everything seemed to be up in the air, but no one knew how it would all turn out.
My strange encounter with the boy and his rabbit was one of many surreal experiences I had in China at that time. So often I had the sense that surface appearances disguised hidden mysteries. There was nothing particularly mystical about this. China is a hugely complex society with a convoluted and often tortuous history. Over generations so much of what has happened in Chinese society has been hidden, rewritten or denied. As in other countries it is often true that “history is written by the victors”. But in China many layers of reality can coexist without even being recorded for posterity. Disabled people, I learned, were one section of Chinese society that had barely existed in the public consciousness – less so in the official records - except as occasional objects of pity, scorn or humour.
So when I first began working with young people with disabilities who were keen to reinvent themselves as humans with dignity, personhood and agency, people able to articulate their dreams and frustrations and challenge the status quo, that seemed as profound a change as any in the fabric of reality. Our work with disabled people, parents groups, preschool teachers and others over the past dozen years has not been easy. Repressive policies have again squeezed the space for civil society, trying to force disability and other social concerns back into a confined box under tight state control. But however tight the controls, disability, gender, sexuality and other human differences do not go away. Neither do the aspirations of people to live rich and meaningful lives.
This Covid year has been another time of pain and confusion for China and the world. Fact, fiction and the utterly bizarre have coexisted in the minds of millions of people caught up in this pandemic and its effects. Today the Chinese Communist Party hosted heroes of China’s war on the virus in the Great Hall of the People, announcing a great victory for the Party (the very Party that had repressed warnings of an epidemic back in January). Thousands of valiant scientists, medics and public workers deserve our praise and gratitude, but that doesn’t erase the criminal responsibility of officials who covered up the truth. Yet the narrative has been remoulded and history is being rewritten by the “victors”. But this pandemic is far from over and how this will all play out in the fullness of time is impossible to say. Reality can present many dimensions and different people will choose different realities.
Meanwhile I wonder whether, amidst the huge changes sweeping the world, that little boy isn’t still sitting in some doorway stroking his grey floppy-eared rabbit. Some aspects of reality may exist beyond time and space – and perhaps that is what we need to hold on to.
Beijing, 9th September 2020
Things aren’t always what they seem
The Chinese phrase 上有政策, 下有对策, “policies above, countermeasures below”, is often used to describe the relationship between the central government and local officials. It also describes the way people can modify the effects of more draconian policies by reinterpreting the rules to protect their own interests. This is a popular contingency with a long, chequered history. In imperial times arbitrary rule by emperors and their ministers often made the lives of their subjects hard or intolerable. At the end of the Ming, for example, high taxes, grain requisitioning and land seizures caused huge resentment, eventually leading to the rebellions which toppled the dynasty. In 1601, newly unemployed weavers violently attacked tax collectors in Suzhou, one of many protests that eventually boiled into full-scale rebellion. But in many cases local officials, mindful of their own interests, modified imperial edicts, reducing the tax burden and protecting people under their jurisdiction. Just as commonly, though, corrupt officials could exceed their mandate, extort bribes and taxes and make people’s lives a misery.
The problem of governance in a country the size of China cannot be underestimated. Yet, as in dynastic times, it is often the “modifying” forces of local officialdom and civic resistance that reduces the impact of national policies – both for good and for bad. During the three decades of China’s one-child family policy local officials often used the policy to prove their loyalty while lining their own pockets, dragging women off to be sterilized, smashing down homes and exacting crippling fines. Yet during the 1990s I also came across examples of local family planning officials who turned a blind eye to “illegal” births. One couple I visited in a poor part of northern Shaanxi already had eight daughters and only stopped when they gave birth to a son. A local official told me that “we respect local tradition” and so they hadn’t imposed a fine or forced the mother to be sterilized.
The culture of “policies above, countermeasures below” has constantly frustrated tyrants, bureaucrats and reformers alike. During the 1980s “soft” corruption - known commonly as yanjiu yanjiu (a pun on the Chinese words “research” – as in “I’ll look into that for you” - and “cigarettes and wine”) – became the lubricant of China’s reforms. Many a business deal, a promotion, even a college entrance – was facilitated by a friendly gift. But quickly the corruption grew into a thing of mind-boggling proportions with, for example, railway officials personally amassing billions of yuan as China built its high-speed railway system. Bribes for job-placements became routine. A blind friend told me how the head of a local special school was charging RMB 200,000 (about £15,000 at the time) for a job placement in his school.
The field of disability in China is rife with this kind of corruption, extortion or distortion of national policy. Sometimes this can work to disabled people’s advantage. In fact, self-protection amongst disabled people in China also has a long and even honourable pedigree. Disabled people’s self-help groups and secret societies were common in imperial China. Blind musicians, fortune-tellers and beggars would often band together to protect their interests and resist exploitation. As recently as the 1990s I came across bands of blind musicians travelling from village to village to play at weddings and funerals. They had no formal association, but were accepted as part of the social landscape.
As I mentioned in my last blog post (click here to access), disabled people in China have now found ways to use employment policies to their advantage. The canbaojin – Disabled People’s employment Levy – is a kind of fine imposed on employers who fail to meet the 1.5% disability employment quota. Most employers still see this as a kind of tax and are barely aware that they can avoid payment by employing a few disabled people. Others are more canny, recruiting disabled staff or, more often, providing sinecures that cost them less than the levy and let them off the hook. The disabled “employee” gets the benefit of a minimum wage, insurance contributions and a bit of “formal” status – all important in securing city residence permits, healthcare etc. But this “win-win situation” (where even the government benefits by increased employment figures) is actually a distortion of the original policy. The Disability Employment Welfare Levy was introduced in 2007 with the laudable intention of increasing disabled people’s employment, while also generating revenue for the CDPF to provide employment training programmes. Sadly it has a poor record in generating employment and its revenue generation – lacking transparency - became just another source of corruption. Meanwhile disabled people themselves have transformed the policy into a kind of welfare system: yet another example of “policies above countermeasures below”.
Another, less benign, example of the “rustication” of national policy, is blind massage. Contrary to many assumptions, massage was not a traditional source of employment for blind people in China (unlike in Japan and Korea). In fact the blind massage industry, which now employs up to 200,000 people, was only developed in China during the 1980s, part of a deliberate strategy by the CDPF to try to solve high unemployment amongst blind people and let them “stand on their own two feet”. Most traditional sources of income – fortune-telling, music, begging – had been eroded after 1949 and most mainstream employment was closed to visually impaired people. So the government and CDPF funded training for blind masseurs across the country, effectively turning every school for the blind into a factory to produce blind masseurs. The intention may have been good; the outcome has been very problematic.
Blind massage came to be seen by many as the default employment path for visually impaired people. This stereotype has reduced diversity of choice for thousands of young blind people. While many blind people have benefitted by becoming clinical masseurs or setting up their own businesses, many others have suffered appalling exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous employers and customers. The worst abuses have been against young visually impaired women, forced into the massage industry and subject to daily humiliation and sexual abuse (you can read more about this in our “Information Sharing” section). This is sadly an example of good intentions gone pear-shaped. Or perhaps the policy itself was misconceived.
Partly as a reaction to such stereotyping, more young blind people in recent years have attempted to take the gaokao college entrance exam, the route to university entrance. With some reasonable adjustments the number of totally blind candidates increased to eight in 2015, but this year is disappointingly down to only five. I am reliably told that this has nothing to do with the pandemic: the gaokao exams were slightly delayed but were held smoothly in July. The low number of blind candidates shows that the vast majority of blind people who enter tertiary education are still being channeled into traditional Chinese medicine and massage, a subject which doesn’t require gaokao.
Blind massage has become so established – and access to other forms of employment is still so limited – that only a tiny number of blind people go on to study other subjects such as law, foreign languages or music. Only a radical new change in policy can change this - and who knows what countermeasures that might evoke?
Beijing, 17th August 2020
Living with Uncertainty
This Year of the Rat (my own Chinese zodiac year) has been beset by uncertainty. Plans made in early January rose, floated and burst as the coronavirus took over our lives. While the Chinese government’s tight management of the epidemic made life in Beijing feel reassuringly safe, the bigger questions over the virus’ origins, the initial cover up and then the morphing of Covid-19 into a global pandemic, left us all feeling deeply unsettled. For the past few months we have watched the course of the pandemic from our 10th floor flat in Beijing, trawling through oceans of information on China’s social media, sifting for “truth” in the official news and then watching in alarm as the virus spread from country to country, exposing the strengths of some and the deadly weaknesses of others. The only certainty in this uncertain world seems to be our deep interconnectedness.
Living and working with disability is in itself an uncertain existence. Our own bodies and minds seem to echo the uncertainties of the world around us, often in more intense and painful ways than for many other people. In many countries, from China to Italy, the UK, America, India and South Africa, people living with disabilities have often had to face curtailed services, isolation, limited access to daily necessities and deep anxiety. Our own research in China has shown how it was often civil society – NGOs, self-help groups etc. – that stepped in where the government failed. While the government eventually did a good job of providing the big infrastructure – controlling, testing, tracing, isolating, treating etc. – it was often left to society to fill the gaps. Unfortunately it is often disabled people who fall through the gaps – and their voices are only rarely heard. This seems to be as true in the UK and US as it is in China.
Despite its massive impact, Covid-19 is only one of many “uncertainties” that affect the lives of disabled people around the world. Working in China we are all deeply aware of the impact of domestic and world politics, the suppression of civil society, the US-China trade war, the demise of “One Country Two Systems” in Hong Kong… All these trends, set against a backdrop of climate change and global injustice, affect the way disabled people live and see their future. People living with disability are vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in the world around them. Yet on another level I think we are often better prepared and more adaptable than many of our non-disabled peers.
Over the years most of our conversations with disabled friends and colleagues in China have been about creativity, innovation and problem solving. I’m constantly amazed by their adaptability in the face of huge obstacles. When we began training visually impaired radio producers in 2006 we assumed that access to technology would pose one of the biggest problems. But within weeks totally blind producers were doing interviews, editing and broadcasting using equipment and software they had adapted to their own needs. A few years later our colleagues at Beijing One Plus One were amongst the first independent journalists in China to make audio podcasts. Most recently, under Covid lockdown, this group helped to relieve blind people of isolation and anxiety, providing online counselling and practical advice to dozens of individuals around the country.
While there is a vast reservoir of talent within China’s disabled community, I don’t want to give the impression that everything is rosy. On the contrary, disabled activists and other supporting disability rights are struggling against formidable odds: lack of access to funding, closure of civil society space, social exclusion, the coronavirus and, last but not least, day-to-day survival. Many blind people have been very creative in the way they have used the government’s “Disability Employment Levy” (canbaojin) to register sinecures with enterprises: they get the security of a “false job” (including social security and some pocket money), while the employer is relieved of paying the disability employment levy (a tax levied on employers that don’t meet the 1.5% disability employment quota). The only “losers” are the China Disabled Persons’ Federation and the government, who rake in a little less revenue than usual.
We all try to find our little oases of certainty in an uncertain world – I guess this has been the same throughout history. However the stakes today may be even higher than before, with mixed messages from governments, threats to the post-War consensus of international law, economic recession, the pandemic and the growing reality of climate change. For each of us planning beyond the next few months is hard. Yet sometimes uncertainty can be preferable to oppressive certainties. Tara Westover, who fled the “certainties” of Mormon survivalism, described her own journey to uncertainty: “To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else's”.
This seems to be a good expression of the power of personhood. Disabled people are often disempowered by stereotyped views and decisions. Embracing uncertainty, while maintaining personal integrity, is itself a kind of liberation. Of course this assumes that basic survival is assured and, for so many disabled people around the world, that has always been the biggest challenge. Over it’s long history, despite successive dynasties rooted in the “certainties” of feudalism, Confucianism, Legalism and, most recently, Marxism, Chinese society has often embraced uncertainty as part of the cycle of life. The famous “eccentric” Chinese artist and calligrapher Zheng Banqiao (1693-1765) inscribed the famous saying 聪明难, 糊涂难, 由聪明而转入糊涂更难 (“It is hard to be clever, it is also hard to be confused; but to move from cleverness to confusion is even harder”) , usually summed up in the phrase 难得糊涂 (“It is hard to gain confusion”) . For me this necessarily ambiguous idea, reflecting Zheng Banqiao’s own uncertainties about the world, captures the idea that to make sense of the world we need to embrace uncertainty. But at the heart of this is a sense that confusion is itself empowering. The question is, how do we make uncertainty into a force for good?
Beijing, 6th August 2020