View from the Media: Fire and Ice

As a supplement to CDB’s Weekly Civil Society News feature, we are launching View from the Media, a weekly column which will summarize and provide analysis of some of the major stories concerning civil society that appear in the Chinese media.

This week, we begin with two cases that sparked widespread controversy in the field: the Lankao Fire Incident and the “Two Freezing to Death” Incident. Both cases draw attention to concerns about government handling of social welfare programming, and to anxieties about the navigation of spaces outside of government administration.

First Case

The Lankao Fire Incident refers to a fire that occurred in Lankao County, Henan, on January 4. It was discovered that 7 orphans, who were living under the care of a woman named Yuan Lihai, perished in the fire. Further investigation revealed that Yuan Lihai ran an unofficial, unregistered orphanage that was nonetheless utilized by local authorities in the county, which lacked an official welfare facility for orphans or abandoned children. According to reports, although both the public and the authorities were aware of substandard living conditions in the orphanage and felt that it was “only a matter of time” before this sort of tragedy would befall Yuan Lihai, the orphanage operated for more than 20 years and received financial and material support from the county government.

The spark of media coverage following the fire brought national attention to this incident, and also brought to light a number of similar shortfalls around the country. According to one article, after news of the Lankao affairs prompted the Guangdong provincial government to investigate the quality of public facilities for orphans and abandoned children, an official in Guangdong, whose county had speciously claimed to operate a state-mandated orphanage, sought to “borrow” orphans from a local temple. Of the 2,853 counties in China, the Ministry of Civil Affairs found that only 64 possessed child welfare facilities. The childcare centers in Aid Stations (救助站), present in a number of counties including Lankao, were deemed unsatisfactory even by local officials (for reasons elucidated in the following section).

While it is unclear precisely what sort of response will unfold in the wake of the incident, the Lankao fire raised a number of issues that will affect both local governments and non-governmental service providers. The lack of proper state welfare facilities for orphans and abandoned children has drawn widespread criticism, leading the Ministry of Civil Affairs to pledge assistance in the creation of 500 counties by 2015. As for the private orphanages caring for more than 80 percent of the country’s 615,000 reported orphans, it is inclear whether the incident will lead local Civil Affairs Bureaus to develop official relationships with these facilities through procurement of services as hoped by some, or whether government efforts will focus on eradicating the operation of illegal orphanages.

Second Case

The second case receiving widepread media attention this week was the case of two homeless men in Changsha, Hunan who froze to death after repeatedly refusing to go to Aid Stations for care. While the initial response from officials seems to have been that the state should not be held liable for the deaths of these men, who chose not to seek help, the case was further complicated by later reports of an undercover journalist who was beaten by Aid Station employees. The employees claimed that they suspected he was mentally ill and perhaps carrying a weapon, and explained that they were trying to restrain him. As a former MCA official stated, however, such a response would be inappropriate regardless of the suspect’s mental state.

The official, Tang Jun, explained in an interview that many of the issues with Aid Stations stem from their previous incarnations as part of the Shelter and Repatriation System (收容遣返制度), which was developed to deal with errant migrant workers in a time when workers were just beginning to leave their homes en masse to seek employment in other provinces. Criticism of the Shelter and Repatriation System led to its disbanding in 2003, when the stations were converted into Aid Stations. Unfortunately, Tang explained, many of the staff have retained their violent habits, and the stations often continue to serve their original purpose of shipping migrants home rather than offering them shelter.

The responses to this case seem to be two-fold, and may cause both positive and negative repercussions. On one hand, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has made efforts to educate Aid Station personnel as to the proper protocol in dealing with these types of situations, so as to make the Aid Stations more hospitable to the homeless. On the other hand, the vows of preventing this sort occurrence may lead to further strong-arming of the homeless into Aid Station facilities, as homeless deaths are felt to reflect poorly on the state. Finally, on the transparency front, a Changsha lawyer has requested that the Aid Station release its financial information, demonstrating a desire among the public to “keep watch” on the stations’ activities.

These cases highlight the complex navigation of social welfare provision in the 21st century, as the public becomes increasingly vocal about expectations that the government will provide adequate social services. In some cases, the government may accept direct responsibility for the operation of these services, but the discussion of “social management innovation” in the 16th – 18th Congress reports indicates that the government will begin to rely on the procurement of social services from social organizations. Regardless of which route the government chooses, the focus on social welfare will have significant repercussions for the numerous non-government organizations who currently fill these roles, and for the groups they serve. Non-government service provision organizations will likely receive more supervision from government agencies or face serious restrictions of the scope of their work, and disadvantaged groups will find that their welfare is of greater concern to local government officials.

In Brief

As a supplement to CDB’s Weekly Civil Society News feature, we are launching View from the Media, a weekly column which will summarize and provide analysis of some of the major stories concerning civil society that appear in the Chinese media.
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