This article by CDB Senior Staff Writer, Guo Ting, follows the controversy and discussion over a public benefit blind dating event in Beijing. The public benefit nature of the event, and controversy over its depiction of gender norms, is yet another illustration of the growing pains involved as the public interest, NGO sector makes further inroads into the mainstream of society.
Editor’s Note: In recent years, following the diversification and development of civil society, differentiation among various NGOs has become more pronounced. In the first half of 2012, a public benefit blind dating event was held involving NGO workers and supporters. How does one define public benefit? The Chinese term “gongyi” is a difficult term to translate into English. Throughout this article, we translate it as “public benefit” or “public service”. It has also been translated as “public interest”, “public welfare” and “charity”. ] Are events like these a waste of resources? What values should NGOs hold? What should “crossovers” (跨界), so popular in the sector today, be focusing on? The term “crossovers” refers to events and activities involving collaboration between different sectors of society.] From the Internet to reality, from one-on-one communication to public discussions, debates over topics which had previously been ignored have begun rising to the surface over the past three months. On what level should the dialogue be conducted? What knowledge can be gleaned from it? How should dialogues between NGOs take place? These are questions worth investigating.
The Public Benefit Blind Dating Event
One of the happiest events of 2012 was “The Little Match Girl,” where men from NGOs tried to find partners for their female colleagues.
But this event was more than just blind dating. Young, handsome candidates from all social circles were gathered together. Here, you could become acquainted with public service, make friends, and embrace “the new ideology of happiness.”
“If you work for the public benefit, please encourage your single lady friends to apply!
If you’re a single woman and work in an NGO, tear off your veil and apply yourself, 2012 is here!
If you like compassionate girls, what are you waiting for? Sign up now!”
In early February 2012, this message appeared on several NGO websites and Weibo accounts, originating from Non-Profit Incubator’s (NPI) (恩派公益组织发展中心(or‘恩派’for short)) call-to-arms in its magazine Social Entrepreneurs (《社会创业家》). According to the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Chen Yingwei (陈迎炜) and copy editor, Zhou Danwei (周丹薇), the blind dating event’s main theme–“The new ideology of happiness”–originated from a collective wedding for five couples from the outskirts of Beijing. This wedding was organized by Social Entrepreneurs and the LSM Rural Reconstruction Center (梁漱溟乡村建设中心).
Catering to those in the sector, Social Entrepreneurs believes that it is a happy sector to work in even though the income of NGO workers is low. To quote from the article promoting the blind dating event, “People from NGOs go to the most remote and poorest areas, carrying the burden of public service as their personal duty. It’s common for them to take home a meager salary, work much harder than the average person, and not have any free time for their personal life. But at the same time, these young people from NGOs represent an emerging set of values and optimism: plain and tough, serving the masses, with the courage to pay the price.” From here, the magazine goes on to explain “the new ideology of happiness,” stating that NGO workers have dreams and aspirations, but in today’s society, the majority of people lack such happiness. “The new ideology of happiness” hopes that through its blind dating event, the happiness of NGO workers can be spread to other sectors.
Aside from spreading happiness, the blind dating event has many goals. Firstly, NGOs have many older single women, and the event aims to provide those who wish to get married more opportunities to meet a potential spouse. Secondly, through using popularly accepted formats like the hit dating TV show “Serious Inquiries Only” (《非诚勿扰》), female NGO workers can be more effectively put on display, allowing more people to become familiar with the faces behind civil society. Lastly, Social Entrepreneurs hopes to promote their “Match Head” project.
In 2011, in an effort to increase its influence and distribution, Social Entrepreneurs collaborated with the Shanghai United Foundation (上海公益事业发展基金会) to launch the Match Head Special Fund Project (“火柴头”专项基金计划). The project had a special contribution format, wherein benefactors would pay 360 RMB per year in order to purchase two subscriptions to Social Entrepreneurs. One subscription would be their own, and the other would be given to a social entrepreneur of their choice. The public benefit blind dating event and the Match Head Project are being jointly promoted, in the hope that those who sign up for the event will participate in this project; this is also the reason the event was christened “The Little Match Girl.”
After the recruitment process, Social Entrepreneurs had 200 male and female contestants, as well as relationship consultants, videographers, and many other volunteers. They received wedding gifts from various merchants (for free or at a discounted rate), and even received 5000 RMB in start up funds from the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会). Tencent and Sina’s public benefit departments also helped promote the competition, along with NGO Development Exchange Online (NGO发展交流网).
On the night of April 15th, 2012, the blind dating event was held at a cafe near Beijing’s Central Business District. Lasting around 3 hours, 52 contestants participated in the event which resulted in 8 new couples. Aside from the host, contestants, and volunteers, many of the benefactors, media, and representatives from companies were also present on the set. Of course, there were also many suspicious and uninvited guests.
The Voice of Doubt
Since its inception, the blind dating event has drawn criticism from netizens.
On February 5th, Zhou Danwei (周丹薇) made a post on his Weibo saying “Oppose the little match which is organized prostitution.” The same day, some netizens expressed concern, opposing several aspects of the event. These included pairing the women of NGOs with men from other sectors (e.g. finance and IT), the article stereotyping female NGO workers as ‘pure,’ and the fact that making marriage the goal of the blind date was supremacist. Below are some of those posts:
@waiting呀呀: Why are the women of NGOs being paired up with men from other sector, and not men from their own sector? Are we just trying to build bridges between different sectors?
@Luna呀: Why separate the sectors by sex? Women from other sectors can’t find men in NGOs? Intellectual, pure, compassionate – these are all just stereotypes; you could apply the same ones to teachers, nurses, etc.
@火犁花723: Marriage is a form of oppression; for most people it adds more pressure rather than providing liberation. Just throw a party and let couples form naturally. Since they all believe in the same cause, NGO people work together, but the way they choose to live their life or how they find love is completely irrelevant to their job. Mixing up NGO workers with these marriage ideals will only lead to alienation.
@麦子家: Pardon me, but has NPI provided a similar service for lesbians and gays? I feel like women are being objectified here; are you saying it’s a disgrace to be single?
In the wee hours of February 6th, women’s rights activist Lu Pin (吕频) also expressed criticism. She pointed out that many of the words used in the article were stereotypical or sexist, such as “selling women,” “bride kidnapping,” “shy,” and “pure,” and that the article’s definition of mainstream thought and the “new ideology of happiness” were not thought through. She pointed out that a similar event in other circumstances would be understandable, but applying it to public benefit organizations is inappropriate.
Throughout the life of his post, Zhou Danwei actively responded to the thread which received over 400 comments and 800 retweets. Zhou responded to each and every new idea, saying, among other things, that a similar blind dating convention should be held for male NGO workers, and that marriage should just be between two people. After this, the criticism temporarily decreased, and was limited to a few websites and Weibo posts.
But the opposition towards the blind dating convention never left the mind of Lu Pin. Three days before the convention was held, she published a lengthy article titled “Is the Happiness of the Public Benefit Blind Dating Event a Myth?” (相亲非公益 “幸福”是迷思). The article strongly criticized the event and “the new ideology of happiness.” Her article put forth the following six main points:
1. The event served only the interests of a few NGO workers, not the interests of the public;
2. Blind dates should be taken care of by individuals or the market; public service should focus its resources on goods the market cannot satisfy;
3. The event’s format was designed only for female-to-male relationships, leaving out the minority in favor of the majority, which goes against the spirit of public service;
4. The article promoting the blind dating event duplicates mainstream society’s portrayal of men as active and women as passive. Matching “men from finance and IT,” with women of NGOs has undertones of classism for couples. Lastly, using words like “shy, intelligent and warm,” stereotypes the women of NGOs.
5. Today’s society is obsessed about marriage. Many people who choose not to get married, such as homosexuals and older unmarried women who get called “leftovers (剩女)”, feel the pressure of this disease. Throughout this event, public benefit organizations are jeopardizing the freedom of unmarried individuals, and obstructing their goal of being innovative and transformative.
6. The dreams of love promoted by the new ideology of happiness can make it easy for people to abandon reality. Using organized methods to promote happiness could mean ignoring social inequalities, and the elimination of equality, rights and transformation – the core values of NGOs.
The article was posted to the CDB website on April 13th, as well as the site’s official Weibo, @NGO招聘. The aforementioned criticism that had been on the wane flared up again; some NGO workers began posting polarizing comments and reposts on the issue. This was the beginning of the debate over the blind dating event.
In contrast to the period when the first critical responses were aired, Social Entrepreneurs kept its mouth shut during this critical time. Later Zhou Danwei explained that this all took place two days before the actual event. Since this was an extremely busy time, there was absolutely no time to respond.
The silence of the hosts was not mirrored by its critics. On April 15th, the night of the event, two volunteers came wearing shirts bearing slogans which included: “Public benefit resources should not be wasted,” “Blind dating is not public service and new happiness is a myth,” and “One must be careful of blind dates, love cannot be bought.” They also distributed leaflets criticizing the event. The volunteers came from a Beijing women’s rights organization called “The Little Mask Squad (口罩小分队).” The organization was founded in the beginning of 2012, often holding public protests and using overblown strategies to express appeals and attract media attention. A few months earlier it worked with director Xu Tong (徐童) to make a film called Wheat Harvest (《麦收》), a protest against the sex worker industry. It also participated in the infamous “Occupy the Men’s Room (占领男厕所)” and “The Wounded Bride (受伤的新娘)” protests. [Editor’s Note: These two events use street performances to call attention to gender bias. See the article “How to Effectively Carry Out Public Interest Performance Art” (如何有效开展街头工艺行为艺术) in CDB’s Spring 2012 issue.]
Han Hongmei (韩红梅), moviemaker for Leimin Studios (雷民影像工作室) was another to arrive on the scene. Leimin Studios films and publicizes videos of protestors to help protect their rights. Han Hongmei filmed some of the protesters that night and also interviewed contestants and audience members. This short video became a key prop in the public debate over the event, and was spread widely on the internet.
A One-sided Public Dialogue
On May 17th at 7pm, 20 NGO workers gathered at a Xizhimen cafe to participate in a salon titled “Was the Public Benefit Blind Dating Event a Waste of Resources?” This event was hosted by third party Internet group “Keep NGOs Fresh (NGO保鲜沙龙),” which strives to provide a platform for NGOs to communicate.
However, participants were not informed until after they had arrived that the event had been postponed. This was one of many bumps along the road for the organizers of the blind dating convention who were attempting to create a dialogue to discuss the event.
Aside from this, a more important reason the two sides failed to come to an agreement was that neither side could agree on how they should engage in dialog.
Lu Pin believes that this is a public matter, and that the dialogue should be carried out in a public place and allow for the participation of the masses. Social Entrepreneur on the other hand believes there has been a misunderstanding between both sides that should be cleared up before opening the conversation to the public. Too busy to involve a large number of people, and with the benefits of the blind dating event possibly taking time to be realized, it hopes to wait things out in order to prove its civic-minded nature.
Zhou Danwei and Chen Yingwei really are busy. Before the dialogue organized by Keep NGOs Fresh, Social Entrepreneur was preparing to publish its next edition. Three days before the event, Zhou and Chen tried to explain to the organizers that they would not be able to participate, but would personally like to invite Lu Pin and Han Hongmei to engage in a face-to-face dialogue after their meeting to select topics for the next edition on May 18th. However, since all the event organizers were volunteers and had regular jobs as well, they were unable to notify participants in time.
After realizing the event would be postponed, Lu Pin issued an open letter questioning the organizers and decided to continue her dialogue with Han Hongmei. Both felt that even though Social Entrepreneur was unable to participate, the event was a public forum and could proceed without them.
Following their decision to proceed with the event, Han Hongmei showed her short video to the twenty or so spectators. This shared the same sentiments as Lu Pin’s earlier article. During the process, one person supported the blind dating event and another was neutral. However the vast majority of participants was critical of the blind dating event.
On May 18, Lu Pin and Han Hongmei went to NPI’s Beijing office to continue the dialogue over gender equality with the staff of Social Entrepreneurs, Chen Yingwen and Zhou Danwei. The substance of their dialogue centered on further explanation, and clearing up misunderstandings, regarding the staff’s response to Lu Pin’s critical comments of the event, and the event’s value to the idea of public benefit.
Lu Pin stated that she felt the public nature of the event and the discussion and controversy that followed was healthy, but believed the public benefit value of the event was compromised by promoting mainstream, traditional views of gender. The event thus was not helpful in promoting gender equality which should not be a choice, but a principle followed by all public benefit organizations.