On March 27th,2013, China Development Brief (CDB) held a seminar on “The Multi-Faceted development of Public Advocacy”. A great number of organizations as well as professionals were invited to discuss the public advocacy environment, main advocates and the question of the variety of advocacy methods. In the course of the discussion, a young man shared his experience as an individual advocate. This man was Lei Chuang, a postgraduate student at Shanghai Jiaotong University. This was my first time seeing him in person although I had already learned his story from the internet and knew he had carried out advocacy activities to fight discriminations against Hepatitis B carriers , In the photograph I saw of him, he seemed mature and rich in life experiences while his long shoulder-length hair gave him an artistic aura. It was only once I had met him that I realized he looked more like a big boy with a shy greeting smile. But when on stage, he managed to give a great speech and was able to liven up the atmosphere with his power points and advocacy experiences. The interesting stories he told and the jokes about himself made people laugh and gained their understanding and insights.
In 2007, Lei Chuang started his own path of individual advocacy activities driven by his personal experience of being discriminated against because of his Hepatitis B infection. At first, lacking of any kind of experience, he just stood on the streets of Hangzhou, holding a sign hoping to convince people that Hepatitis B could not be transmitted through daily contacts. However his efforts to gain awareness from the media and the public did not meet with the intended outcome. He changed his strategy and started writing to those he thought could make a difference. He called it the “writing trilogy”, which meant sending letters to the Ministry of education, deans of famous universities, researchers, NPC and CPPCC delegates as well as to someone that everybody knew: the prime minister. For the past two years, he has been writing a letter to the prime minister every day hoping to invite him for dinner. He hopes that this achievement could show that the government cares about Hepatitis B issues, and is working to eliminate school admission and job recruitment discriminations, thus promoting social equity.
Many people are interested in knowing how many of the letters he sent received an answer. He says he sent out thousands of letters but received very few answers. He only received two answers from the over a thousand letters he sent to university deans. He was a little luckier with the researchers since he received four answers out of 500 letters sent. Better still, he received over ten replies to the five hundred letters he wrote to NPC delegates. Among them, some came from provincial government departments such as the Shanghai mayor’s office and others from grassroots officials such as one from a village committee Secretary. He also received answers from famous entrepreneurs and members of non-communist parties such as Zong Qing Hou and Lei Jun. As for the letters he sent to the Prime Minister, after writing for over a year, the State department replied and said that it could not pass the letters to the prime minister and advised him to stop sending.
People sometimes ask him if his tiny accomplishments are worth it. Lei Chuang answers that there are things that seem to be failures, but that they not necessarily are, since the process they have created had an impact. Therefore, just go for it and don’t worry about the results. Writing to the prime minister may not allow him to actually meet the prime minister, but it can attract more and more attention from people.. Individual advocacy is a bottom-up action. It is unrealistic to think you can succeed by carrying out a single action. Even successful cases such as the ‘free lunch’ campaign had to get the support from “the collective force” of the public to influence the government to issue new policies.
Apart from the ‘writing trilogy’, Lei Chuang carried out other forms of ‘performance art’ such as asking for warmth and hugs on the streets, selling rice in an ancient costume and inviting passer-bys for dinner. Using this kind of‘Lei Ren’ (a little shocking) strategic campaigns he succeeded in improving people’s knowledge of Hepatitis B. He also keeps micro-blogging his actions. Some even got reported by local media and received a positive response. For years Lei Chuang has been using his own way not only to fight discriminations against Hepatitis B, but also for advocating other causes such as the disclosure of government officials’ salaries, expenditures on vehicles, receptions and travels. He also questioned the increase in oil prices, protested against the railroad department because of the equal price one has to pay for “standing tickets” and “sitting tickets” as well as other social issues. Furthermore, he broke fresh ground for advocacy launching the “sending pears” ((In Chinese “鸭梨” which means pear and “压力” which means pressure, are both pronounced “yali”. In this campaign, Lei Chuang makes a play on words and uses pears to illustrate the public’s pressure on government officials.)) campaign to supervise government’s actions. These issues are also the hotspot of public attentions. The cases of Xi’an’s “Brother Watch”, and Guangzhou’s “Uncle House” ((The surnames “Brother Watch” （表哥） and “Uncle House” （房叔） were given by netizens to two local officials who were caught exhibiting Rolex watches and owning tenths of houses. These two cases were largely discussed in China to illustrate corruption in the country.)) raised many questions on the Internet and created a push for disclosure of the two officials’ salaries that eventually resulted in their dismissal.
Although Lei Chuang asked 53 ministries to make their minister’s salary public, as before, he “failed” to get any result. Nonetheless, the government is working on the legalization of a civil servants’ assets declaration system, which is a huge leap forward on the path for anti-corruption. Such reforms come not only from the determination of the government, but also from the urge from the general public. I asked him whether he had ever encountered any obstacles or misunderstandings. He said that he had and shared his experience of getting threatened by the Shenzhen Bureau of Health and kicked out of the place. There are also some people who think he is just creating a hype. For the former issue, he said he simply tried to interact with the government in a rational and non-violent way. As for the latter, he said it was better to just smile and pay no attention to such claims.
Speaking of non-violent strategy, Lei Chuang specifically mentioned Gandhi in his report. “But our core strategy is completely different,” he said with a smile on his face, “I don’t intend to go on hunger strike.” Actually, I understand what he means by core strategy. He is not conducting non-violent protest, but non-violent communication. Seeking a more rational, gentle way to communicate more efficiently with the government and the general public, in an effort to influence and change them. I think this is a strategy that is the result of his long struggles and growth. That’s why he always says on his micro-blog, “Don’t ever forget to smile, it makes us stronger”.
I asked Lei Chuang what were his plans for the future given his upcoming graduation from Jiaotong university. He replied with a smile that graduation meant unemployment. He had not made up his mind for his future yet, but he might continue doing advocacy work for a while. Not long after, I saw he wrote on his blog that he wanted to “be challenged and be an independent public interest activist while he was still young”. He also attached a specific activity plan for the following year. In his homepage, he also put a photo of a pilgrim on his journey to pilgrimage. On it, he wrote a few words that inspired me: “for dreams, freedom and dignity.”