Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared online in 2012 and we are re-publishing it to mark 2014 World AIDS Day.
As part of her series on NGOs in Anhui, Guo Ting tells the bittersweet story of an AIDS relief practitioner’s ultimately successful efforts to set up a Chi Heng Foundation office in Anhui province, register it as a NGO and deliver financial assistance to HIV-infected families in the area. Ma Zhengzhou’s story reveals the difficulties faced by NGO practitioners in China yet also illustrates how they can overcome those difficulties by persisting through adversity and rejection, and building good relations with local GONGOs.
At the end of 2011, I received an anonymous reader’s letter. The letter in fact consisted of only a single line, “please pay attention to the tragic fate of rural HIV-infected people,” while the body was completely empty, without a name or contact details. Curious, I wrote back to seek an understanding of the writer: He was Xiao Dai, a young man from rural northern Anhui, whose parents contracted HIV through blood transfusions in the 1990’s, bringing further hardship to this already poor family. He had to study hard to secure a place at a university, and yet he arrived carrying his bedroll, unable to pay his tuition, and prepared to be rejected and head south to do manual work. He avoided this fate thanks to the generosity of the Chi Heng Foundation (智行基金会), an organization that provides financial aid to children affected by AIDS and which, having learned of his situation, provided tuition fees and living expenses. Today Xiao Dai has graduated and is married with children.
Of course, behind any inspiring story is a more complicated struggle. Xiao Dai’s story deviated from the standard script. After graduating from university, rather than seeking a highly-paid job, he chose to join Chi Heng’s AIDS relief work. He is currently working in their Anhui office, the Fuyang Women and Children Development Association (阜阳妇女儿童发展协会) where he is the assistant director. In order to help children with backgrounds similar to his own, he plans to work with Chi Heng for at least a decade. But, his meager salary, coupled with his father’s death and mother’s illness, not to mention the financial strains of raising a child have left Xiao Dai feeling troubled. He found China Development Brief’s (中国发展简报) contact details on its website and wrote a letter of appeal, imploring CDB to bring attention to rural impoverished areas affected by HIV and the relief work being carried out.
Having received Xiao Dai’s introduction, before the new Lunar year, I traveled to the Fuyang Women and Child Development Association, to visit its director, Ma Zhengzhou.
AIDS Relief Work in Poverty-Stricken Areas
In early 2003, Ma, now in his early thirties, graduated from university and threw himself into public interest work. Initially, he joined the well-known Fuyang AIDS Orphans Salvation Association (AOS, 阜阳市艾滋病贫困儿童救助协会). Three years later he accepted an offer to set up a Chi Heng Foundation office in Anhui. Recalling the work of the past few years, he felt the first year he buried himself in work matters, while his second year was committed to rooting out false claims for aid. Then in the third and fourth years, his work finally began to enter a routine.
In the 1990s, farmers living in impoverished areas in Henan and Anhui provinces sold their blood to blood banks. The blood banks’ lack of standards led to a high number of HIV infections, including in the Fuyang region. In order to help infected persons, a number of NGOs were set up in the Fuyang area to provide aid and carry out relief work.
The blood banks’ errors produced tragic consequences on a massive scale, and government subsidies so far have not met the needs of those affected. NGOs providing relief also tend to have a variety of constraints, and have to balance political concerns with provision of aid to the infected, which adds even more difficulties to the situation.
In the first year of Ma’s work with Chi Heng, he investigated villages affected by HIV going from family to family, recording things such as family income, number of children in the family and educational level, and provided grants and subsidies based on his assessment. However, during the second year problems began to surface, most notably, finding several residence permits (hukou) at a given home, some real and some fake, which showed discrepancies in the number of children. When the family planning authorities came around the family would present its one-child permit. When Chi Heng came, the family might present a five or six-child permit—in one case a family claimed twelve children, borrowing them from neighbors and schooling them in how to answer the case worker’s questions. ((Editor’s Note: Chi Heng gives subsidies to children whose parents are HIV-positive, so families have an incentive to falsify the number of children in order to receive a larger amount of money.))
Due to the lack of government capacity, those infected with HIV and living in poverty are doubly marginalized in status. Ma is very clear that moral accusations against vulnerable groups are another type of oppression. In truth, moralistic teachings are beautiful but not practical, and individuals face hard realities. Nevertheless, NGOs owe a duty to their donors. To screen and examine people living on the margins is hard work but has to be done.
Ma’s main approach to uncovering fraud involves soliciting information from anonymous informants, though sometimes the deception is obvious from the start. For example, regarding the family claiming they had 12 children, Ma initially felt some uncertainty, and a glance at the hukou confirmed his suspicions: the counterfeit hukou was so shoddily made that several children’s dates of birth were written in different months within the same year.
Ma made a joke to the man of the house, saying: “You seem pretty well-off and influential, so why are you looking for a handout?”
The man naturally surprised said: “Director Ma, what are you talking about? I’m extremely poor. How could I be influential?”
Ma pointed to the hukou and said: “You must have several wives, otherwise how can several children be born in the same year, one every few months?”
Ma took the dumbstruck man aside and explained that, although money is tight, public interest organizations are just well-meaning people donating money to help others, and people should not fake poverty to take advantage of others’ kind hearts. According to regulations, the aid eligibility of the person making the fraudulent claims should have been rescinded. But after a verification of the family’s actual situation and cancellation of their false claim, Ma connected the family with some other aid organizations to provide support.
The man was chastened and voluntarily took on the role of informant, ferreting out other fraudulent claims in the community and smoothing out many of the obstacles that Ma would have otherwise faced.
Working in the countryside for so many years, Ma has a host of stories, but the one that he remembers most is the time he drove into a river. It all started with Chi Heng’s accounting system, which is very strict, and requires an official receipt before reimbursing any expenses. On many trips to the countryside, unable to procure any sort of receipt, Ma ended up paying his bus fare out of pocket. To avoid this problem, he bought a motorbike. Not only was it convenient, but he could always get an official, reimbursable receipt from a filling station. Ma, however, was unsteady on his new bike and before long, on the way to Funan County, he had an accident and fell into a river. Fortunately, he was uninjured and able to extricate himself without any trauma, hurrying home to rest. To his surprise, the next day many people called him to express their sympathies. He thought no one had seen the accident, but it seems that someone had witnessed it from a distance, and word quickly spread. A few days later, the entire Funan HIV circle knew and had expressed their sympathies, which touched him very deeply.
When You Stumble, Get Back Up and Try Again
Ma’s first job was assisting in the filming of the Oscar-winning documentary “The Blood of Yingzhou District” and working with the renowned AOS ((Editor’s Note: “The Blood of Yingzhou District” was a documentary directed by Ruby Yang about AIDS orphans in Anhui’s Yingzhou District”)). When he was young he thought about, but ultimately left AOS due to a clash of personalities and principles. Afterwards, he found work doing marketing and promotion for a milk company. His sheer drive and willingness to work through the hottest summer days saw him promoted to sales manager after just three months. He made 2400 RMB per month which, in Fuyang in 2006, was a considerable income.
After seeing the job vacancy at the Chi Heng Foundation, Ma sought to rekindle his original dream. During the interview, the interviewer said they could only give him a wage of 600 RMB. When asked if that was ok, Ma stated that even no money would be ok. Upon hearing this, another interviewer asked if 400 RMB was acceptable, and Ma gladly accepted. He thus joined Chi Heng on a salary that was 2000 RMB/month less than his previous job. Recalling his decision, Ma says that he was not really motivated by compassion, but more by a desire to prove his own character and mettle.
At first, the entire Chi Heng Anhui office consisted of just him, in one room, with a desk and a telephone. Not knowing what to do and having no one to provide guidance, Ma went to Xu Zhenjun, the director of the Chi Heng Foundation in Greater China. Xu said, “We hired you to figure the job out yourself,” and added jovially “if you are truly at a loss you might as well go home.”
Ma had to figure things out on his own and set about implementing canvassing and relief efforts in accordance with Chi Heng’s policies aimed at AIDS-affected youth. Today, the Fuyang Women and Child Development Association has employed a total of five full-time staff, with the addition of two information specialists and two interviewers, and has provided relief to a total of 1150 children. During busy times, the five head to the countryside to deliver goods and materials and provide subsidies. Due to Chi Heng’s regulations, the provision of grants and subsidies must all be witnessed, for fear of unexpected irregularities that could be hard to deal with.
Chi Heng has particularly strict financial requirements, and on one occasion when Ma attempted to claim for travel costs, due to a discrepancy of one RMB, he was refused travel reimbursements for a whole month. As it turns out, on his return trip to Fuyang the bus ticket vendor had errantly torn off the one RMB of travel insurance from Ma’s ticket. He ultimately procured a testimonial from the chairman of the Funan County Women’s Federation, explaining the local practices of bus operators and corroborating Ma’s account. Ma ultimately was reimbursed.
Although the Chi Heng’s financial system is particularly strict and at times a little harsh, the operating expenses of this institution have not been a problem for many years. But, in order to expand and apply for more projects, or receive local contributions, they needed to register in order to obtain legal status. The two-year process saw Ma jumping through an endless series of hoops, once again demonstrating his unyielding character.
In the past two years, all over the country, many of the requirements for registering a NGO have been relaxed. But while several major cities have implemented direct registration, in a prefecture-level city like Fuyang, NGOs must still find an official sponsor ((Editor’s Note: The author is referring here to experiments being carried out in several cities such as Shenzhen which are allowing NGOs to register directly with the Civil Affairs office without having to find a government sponsor, also known as the “professional supervising unit.” The main reason why many NGOs in China cannot register is because of the difficulty of finding such as sponsor.)). Because of the nature of Chi Heng’s work, Ma thought the Fuyang City Women’s Federation would be an appropriate sponsor, and began the application process in 2008 ((Editor’s Note: The NGO’s sponsor or professional supervising unit should be working in the same sector as the NGO. Since Ma’s NGO was working on women’s and children’s health, a logical sponsor would be either the Women’s Federation or the local Health department.)). At first his applications were all rejected without explanation, so Ma got in touch with a seemingly affable department head from the Women’s Federation and cultivated a relationship, seeking this insider’s advice. Even after the improvements, again and again Ma submitted the applications only to be refused. After a year of this, Du Cong, founder and director of the Chi Heng Foundation, heard that they had still not been accepted, and proposed that he personally meet with the Women’s Federation chairman. However, after the meeting, he felt the situation was hopeless and advised Ma to give up.
But Ma refused to give up and continued to apply over and over again. In November 2010, over half a year later, the Chairperson of the Fuyang City Women’s Federation made a telephone call to say they would be the NGO’s sponsor. But Ma’s troubles were not over. The Bureau of Civil Affairs was poised to deny approval because of Chi Heng’s programs aimed at homosexuals. Ma went back to the Women’s Federation to seek their explicit, written support as a guarantor—a trusted organization to vouch for Chi Heng’s activities. After a month of limbo, the application was finally approved and the Fuyang Women and Child Development Association became the first of Chi Heng’s ten nationwide offices to secure official recognition on the local level.
After hearing the news, and after six years of its own rejections, another Fuyang volunteer organization came to Ma to ask him if he had a strong network of relationships to help him succeed. Ma said he really did not, and the secret to success is an unyielding character.
Ma Zhengzhou’s New Year Wishes
In early January 2012, when the Chi Heng Foundation held their national annual meeting, Du Cong asked Ma if he had any wishes, Ma said he was hoping for a raise—not for himself, but for the other employees.
Despite Chi Heng being a Hong Kong foundation, it is still difficult for them to raise money needed to cover administrative costs. There was a two-year period when administrative costs came out of Du Cong’s own pocket. Even when there is money, it is limited. As a result the office staff salaries all over the country are quite low. Chi Heng’s employees, all university graduates, enter on a salary of just 800 RMB, later raised to just 900 RMB. After deducting various insurance premiums, employees are left with a net salary of just over 500 RMB.
Staff who wish to develop their careers and live with dignity have no choice but to find alternative jobs, and a high staff turnover means low efficiency. The loss of key employees makes Ma very sad. Many people stay on for a year, only to leave because of the low salary, and the re-recruitment cost for small institutions like this is too great.
In addition to increasing salaries, Ma hopes to increase the Association’s ability to fundraise. Although his office receives regular funding as a branch of Chi Heng, the whole purpose of procuring local registration was to increase the number of local funding channels and develop new projects. Grant proposals have proven challenging but improving their capacity to fundraise and develop sustainably is one of Ma Zhengzhou’s New Year wishes.
Postscript: This interview took place on the 19th January 2012, and was distributed to the press in early March 2012. I mentioned at the beginning of the article a chat with Xiao Dai who has in the last few days told me some surprising news. The new was that Ma Zhengzhou had decided to change careers due to financial pressures. Ma did not want to be interviewed further and Xiao Dai did not want to elaborate. We therefore have no way of knowing the details, but this outcome perhaps illustrates the predicament faced by grassroots NGO practitioners in central China.