During her time with Green Web (绿网) and the China WTO Network(中国世贸网), Han Hongmei (韩红梅, formerly known as Han Qi, 韩祺) has worked in development education (发展教育), trade, community film and theater, and advancing the rights of marginalized groups. In 2006, Han participated in the preparations for Beijing’s first people’s theatre group, called Tanghulu Theatrical Troupe (糖葫芦剧团). In 2011, Han completed a community film project on domestic workers called “Us” (我们),and in July of that year she helped launch an organization called the One Yuan Commune (一元公社), which is devoted to social mobilization and spreading the ideals of civil society. Later that year, in September, she also helped to establish the ‘Lei Min Image Workshop’ (雷民影像工作室), using film as an agent for empowering marginalized groups. After her involvement in all of these projects she was chosen as a Gingko Partner in 2012.
A deep interest in public welfare
When Han Hongmei graduated from college, she could easily have chosen to return to her hometown and live a normal life. However, she decided to escape from the strict social ties of family life and go to Beijing alone. As she went about looking for work, she found that most companies required employees with work experience, so she set about finding ways to accumulate experience piece by piece. One day, she discovered that a volunteer organization called Guizhouren (贵州人) was recruiting a volunteer newsletter editor, and figured that the volunteer position was a good way to gain experience. It was this position that allowed her to take her first small step into the world of public welfare.
In this position, Han became acquainted with many like-minded friends with whom she discussed public welfare and their hopes and dreams. Six months flew by, and Han found that another institution, Green Web [绿网, a now defunct NGO], was recruiting for a full-time newsletter editor position focused on development education projects. As the work was similar, Han decided to switch jobs and work for Green Web.
Green Web is a well-established NGO; in its earliest form it served as an online discussion forum for those interested in environmental protection. It was founded by Gao Tian, the current vice-secretary of the SEE Ecological Association Foundation (阿拉善SEE基金会), as well as a group of dedicated volunteers. From 2005 to 2007, Han’s role at Green Web quickly expanded from producing newsletters on development education to participating in programs.
At that time, development education had just entered the mainland. When development education became a hot topic, Han and her companions worked tirelessly with university students by giving lectures, providing training, holding theatre workshops, and hosting discussion forums. Within a year Han had held 14 training sessions, and it’s impressive to consider how Han trained college students who were only a couple of years younger than herself.
However, problems soon emerged. As an educational system guided by a system of values, development education has an established theoretical framework and a clear developmental context. But the young Han was not too familiar with these. The training that she received made it difficult for Han to grasp the overall concept of social issues. She recalls how, at that time, she always aspired to reflect and think critically about social problems, but never thought about what critical thinking itself was. About, for example, what the reality of social problems really was, and how these problems actually related to young people.
Looking back, both the group of people involved in development education, and the modes of thinking that were employed, were equally young. Both also faced their own challenging issues. Development education trainers ought to have a degree of experience, otherwise their training loses value. For example, after receiving her own training, Han wanted to teach the college students about how society should be fair. However, how is fairness achieved? Everyone’s minds, including Han’s, were stuck on the question.
So, how can individuals grow? Han believes that young people must see themselves in relation to social development, and personally connect with it. A teacher could emphasize the importance of personal growth and improvement, but it is more important to emphasize how the individual relates to social development. By doing more than just sitting around and talking about social justice, an individual can develop themselves through creating real change in society.
How can one connect young people with society? The One Yuan Commune, the organization that Han currently manages, organizes lectures and discussions so that more young people pay attention to their community and establish critical perspectives on society. However Han also recognizes that it is even more important to let young people participate themselves in social movements, because social change can only come from action. For this reason Han began to get involved with actions that went beyond her work with Green Web.
Using film to connect with the marginalized
In 2006, Han designed a community media activity called ‘Let me come near you’ (让我走近你), which organized groups of young people to film a documentary about those who are marginalized. Han believes that using video demonstrates a kind of supremacy, something is imposed on the group being filmedIf you go to film marginalized groups, why should they let you? Why should they allow you to understand their lives? The process of solving this problem is a process of establishing contact and interaction with these marginalized groups.
Despite receiving 5,000 RMB from Green Web to fund the project, Han still struggled for money. Instead of sitting around worrying, she took action and looked everywhere for free resources. By doing this she managed to stay within the budget. The first resource that she found was Zhou Yu, who was working at Brooks NGO (天下溪). Through Zhou, Han was introduced to DV filmmaking [a film format], and began looking for filmmakers to volunteer their services. She looked to cafes to provide free rental space, and was especially grateful to the supportive Box Café (盒子咖啡馆), which not only provided her with a free venue, but also provided T-shirts as gifts to volunteers. The filming required equipment, and she managed to borrow three cameras from friends. This even included one very expensive camera worth over a hundred thousand yuan, which came from a volunteer who secretly borrowed it from an environmental organization. Han was terrified of handling such equipment, because with such a modest income, if an accident happened she could not repay the amount even if she gave all the money she had.
After a few months, several groups had released films. Protagonists included a young mechanic, and a musician named Wang Xu who busked below underpasses, but ended up hitting the big time and establishing his own singing group called ‘Xu Ri Yang Gang’ (旭日阳刚). The films were screened in Beijing’s International Trade Center, and Wang Xu made the visit on a bleak winter day to show his support. Wang Xu always remembered that, though the program could not afford to pay for transportation, Han paid the fee out of her own pocket. Even after becoming famous Wang still called Han to chat about this experience. There was also a film about the recent closure of Beijing migrant schools, with filmmakers interviewing migrant children. The film had the opportunity to be shown on television, but eventually was not because the technical quality wasn’t good enough. However, it attracted the attention of ‘Min Jian’ (民间) magazine, which in 2006 published an article based on one of the film’s interviews.
This project meant a lot to Han. It enabled her to witness how young people can participate in the development of society. The young people, all in their twenties, who took part, had a special sense of justice, passion, and action, and through encountering social problems, they demonstrated their own strength. However, at that time development education still encountered many difficulties and external controversy, with critics saying that development education had become like a theater workshop. Although Han had her own thoughts and practices, she was still too young to think about the field clearly, and to fight for its rightful recognition.
When the development education program encountered setbacks, Han sometimes felt defeated. Despite feeling that she was dedicated and confident about doing development education, she sometimes felt that she could not continue. At that time, she continuously tried to apply for funding programs. Program officials questioned why they should provide Han with funding. This frustrated her because she thought that funders and partners should come to agreements through collaborative and equal discussion, coming to a consensus rather than the partners get an idea first and then try to convince the funders by following their thoughts. With this, she believed, there were problems of equality, and also whether each side had a different understanding of the issue at hand.
At the end of 2007, an NGO network concerned with globalization called China WTO Network was recruiting. Han switched jobs and became the organization’s coordinator, working there until mid-2012. Her work at the China WTO Network had a great influence on her. Firstly, it helped her to partially solve some of the remaining problems of the development education programs. It also laid the foundations for the One Yuan Commune’s work at expanding public space. Established during a time of intensive globalization and just after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), China WTO Network’s work clarified the problems Han encountered while engaged in development education work. She learned how to see the structural logic behind the rise of social problems. For example, intellectual property rights can protect innovation, but sometimes they restrict capital flow to secondary actors who have traditionally benefitted from a product. This can be the case when traditional Chinese medicine recipes are patented. These recipes have often been passed down through many members of a community, only to ultimately be exploited by one individual patent holder. This not only takes money away from communities, but also harms it through increasing the costs of the medicine after it has been patented.
The China WTO Network also had its limitations. Owing to the founder’s international background, discussion topics tended to come from the international level, not from the bottom-up, local-level community. Moreover, due to the all-encompassing nature of trade issues, Han found it difficult to do thorough, detailed work by herself, and found that it was hard for some trade issues to take root in the community.
During her time at the China WTO Network, Han continued to use her spare time working with the community theater and community video project. Throughout that time she therefore felt that she remained connected to the community. By 2010, she again sought a change.
The strength of marginalized groups
At the end of 2010, and because Wang Xu’s music group had become popular, Han had the opportunity to film a group of migrant laborers who worked as domestic workers.
With this new project lasting for 9 months Han considered taking the same approach as when she was doing development education, by asking young people to film marginalized groups and encouraging them to enact change. But early in 2011, Han saw a documentary film by the Taiwan Labor Organization Nanyang Sisters Association (台湾劳工组织南洋姐妹会) called ‘Sisters sell Winter melon'(姐妹卖冬瓜). Watching this film gave her new insight into the true context of her work: that workers should be involved in community groups themselves, so as to discover their own strength, and make their own voices heard.
Han improved her project strategy by giving filming equipment to the female domestic workers and allowing them to film themselves. This was very difficult at first, because although some worker sisters in the community recognized each other, no one was willing to contact anyone else for the purpose of shooting a film. Two weeks later when the team met up again, nothing had been shot. The process of going from individual to collective required constant engagement. In the initial, introductory stages, they needed help using social work methods. Han had never formally studied social work, but when she discovered that this was the issue, she started studying the methods used by social workers. Afterwards, she attempted to initiate group activities, first getting the workers together for a fun activity like singing or dancing, and then afterwards discussing common issues such as wages, security needs, domestic violence, children, and employer-employee relations. After identifying these common problems, Han introduced community theater to the group, enabling the sisters to tell their stories and identify with one other, acting out a collective story through their performance. In the end, everyone discussed how to solve their collective problems and shared their individual strategies and survival skills.
From this perspective, community video does not tell a tragic story, instead it discovers the strength of marginalized groups by enabling them to demonstrate their own value. After six months of training, the workers had established their own activist group, and began to solve their own problems. Han believed that this type of project provided far more practical benefits to the group, than if, for example, she had just provided them with legal training.
Public space expanding from the margins
When the domestic workers film project began to evolve, Han searched for a supervisor for each group of workers. She contacted social work expert Qu Ping and gender expert Lv Pin for help. However, the project had not budgeted for a professional supervisor, and after finding them, Han said: “I only have 100 yuan, which you could either split to cover transport costs, or perhaps we could have dinner together?” As Han expected, they got together to share a meal, and during the meal they laid out the plans for the development of the One Yuan Commune.
The idea to build a commune originated from the desire of the domestic workers to have a space for weekend activities. At that time, the China WTO Network and Lv Pin’s Gender Watch network (妇女传媒监测网络) were looking for an office, and decided to rent some small offices together. These offices could then also be used as an activity space when not in use by the NGOs. Soon, they found a suitable space near the Liu Fang metro station. The rent was over budget, but they sought donations from some friends and together compiled one year’s rent. In July 2011, the One Yuan Commune was opened.
After opening, the domestic workers had their own space, but they were only able to use it on the weekends when they had free time. Because NGOs are not accustomed to waste, Han and Lv began organizing all kinds of activities in the unused Commune space. These ranged from screenings, monthly talks, discussions among women, and advocacy salons that focused on rights and social development issues, to book club meetings that emphasized the development and training of youth, and NGO capacity-building training. After successfully hosting these events for more than a year the Commune had developed a good reputation within Chinese civil society. The activities allowed people from different sectors and areas to gather and meet, which enhanced public awareness of social issues and public interest organizations, whilst promoting exchange between NGOs and greater reflection on social issues.
More than a year after the Commune opened, they were holding regular lectures and seminars on rights and advocacy. In the social environment of the time, many said that public space was a sensitive subject. However, Han believed that in the process of transforming from a collective society to a capitalist society in which people can experience great losses, there should still be space to conduct public life. Currently, we are in an era where there is an extreme lack of public space, and many people have lost the ability to participate in public affairs as individuals. Public space encourages more people to consciously participate in public discussion, so that more people do not just care about their own lives, but become more concerned with social issues and the lives of marginalized people, and are encouraged to contribute to public welfare. Given the current restrictive social environment, the public space in China is not a suitable platform to assemble opposition parties for confrontation, but a channel to transform society in a positive direction.
When the Commune held events, they also encountered people with misunderstandings, but after sitting down and speaking candidly, the two sides would find that this is just part of the process of mutual understanding. Applying for funding is also like this, in that sometimes the degree of openness of domestic foundations will exceed the original NGO proposition; such was the case of Han’s application to Gingko Partners.
Serving as an advocate for Ginkgo Partners
One day in August 2012, a young man came up to Han after an event and asked: “Are you short on money?” Han, who had been working tirelessly juggling several projects, said: “We are not short on money, but short on people.” Han chatted with the young man and eventually agreed that she did indeed lack funding. He flashed his business card: he was Li Yusheng, of the communications department of the Narada Foundation, and he recommended that Han apply to the Gingko Partner program. A month later, she began the application procedure. For Han, this was a rare opportunity for reflection, so she sat down to analyze her past experience in the public welfare field, starting from the very beginning with the organization ‘Guizhouren’.
Since the overwhelming majority of Ginkgo Partners had been service-oriented organization leaders, Han thought her own application didn’t have much of a chance. She was therefore quite surprised when she was eventually chosen. Thinking about it now, she realises that some domestic foundations are more open than they are originally expected.
Han once heard Xu Yongguang [Chairman of the Narada Foundation] talk about the role of rights defense organizations. During his talk Xu pointed out that one function of such organizations is preserving stability. In Han’s opinion, this shows that Xu is an open-minded public service leader, and has enough insight and tact to effectively connect the resources of domestic foundations with the requirements of grassroots advocacy organizations.
After the Ginkgo Partners nominated Han, she could have heeded the advice of the judges by going to university to study sociology or anthropology, and continuing to participate in the management of the One Yuan Commune. However, with the end of the China WTO Network, the commune had already been relying solely on Gender Watch’s rent budget for half a year. It’s budget deficit therefore had continued to grow. With the soaring rise of Beijing rental costs, rent was even harder to find. However, this idea of public space with its meaning and value could not be limited to those few square meters. The space provides a unique environment where marginal perspectives and grassroots wisdom combine, and where social criticism and reflection flourish at a time when mainstream points of view dominate society. To this day they survive, relying on donations and support from friends. Han is also developing a new project, the ‘Lei Min Image Workshop’, to raise funds in order to ensure this space continues to expand and survive.