Trimming the hair of an old man: or, volunteering within Chinese civil society

The focus on radical political activism in most western discussions of Chinese civil society is unrepresentative of the civil society that actually exists. What this does have is a box of hats, a network of contacts and a presence on QQ, the instant messaging service that has penetrated deep into the fabric of Chinese life.  

Tom Bannister
21 June 2012

We had arranged to meet in the car-park of a large supermarket that lay beside one of the many ring roads that circled the sprawling city. With my only contact details being the phone number of someone that I had recently met online, I waited by the closed doors of the main entrance wishing that I had brought along a flask of coffee. The store was situated in one of those rapidly developing western Chinese cities too far away from direct international flights to gain much page-space in western media. It was the winter, 2011, and I was waiting in the early morning drizzle to spend the day with a local grassroots volunteering organisation. Having been involved with Chinese volunteer groups for a while I knew that this was always the worst bit, before you got to know the group and the group got over their curiosity at seeing a foreign volunteer. Doing it sans caffeine would be worse. 

Once contact had been made and the round of introductions had finished, we set off in a convoy of three cars to the village in which the Old People’s Home, the target of today’s volunteering, was situated. There were four of us; the driver, Dr Chen, worked in a small local hospital; sitting in the passenger seat was a young office worker; and sitting next to me was a university student. We talked football, the universal language of strangers, as Dr Chen drove us onto an already busy highway, a watery sun emerging through the wintery haze. I say we: the student remained politely silent.

China's "Outside People" - Moving from Countryside to City

Demotix/Alec Ash.In a hutong near the Confucius temple, Beijing. All rights reserved.

Volunteering is becoming increasingly popular in China as a synergy of conditions creates a propitious environment. Rapid development has meant that more and more people feel able to help those who have not benefited from rapid economic growth. To strengthen this growth the state is actively encouraging the concept of volunteering within a narrative of good citizenship - part of its drive to create citizen middle-classes able to power its domestic market. In keeping with this is a societal backlash against the perception of widespread immorality of a society fixated on the pursuit of wealth. Looming over all, as so many political analysts like to point out, is the idea of a democratising civil society; a magic bullet of autonomous organisation that will emerge organically to pierce the bubble of totalitarianism. 

These concepts seemed far away as I debated with the front-seat passengers about which football team most disappointed their respective publics: in England or China. This conversation occupied us for most of the ride but eventually, whilst Dr Chen lit yet another cigarette, I began to talk to Lili, the student who was by now probably wishing she hadn’t come. Lili was a final year student at the local University. I asked her why she was here. Like me it was also her first time volunteering for the group; like me she had also met the organisers online (she had been waiting a few metres away from me in the damp car-park). As the weak winter sunlight spread into the car Lili told me that she wanted to volunteer because her affluent middle-class life-style lacked meaning and she felt guilty that this was so. She had searched for a local organisation on the internet and came across this group. 

Lili is a member of the hundreds of millions of young people in China who have known nothing else but post-Mao prosperity. In China they are known as the post-80s generation and they are at the forefront of an increasingly pluralistic society, open to ideas that are non-traditional and non-communist. The internet both exposes them to these new ideas and ties them together in a social group. They are the largest single demographic of internet users on the planet and they are highly connected. During my time volunteering in China many of the volunteers that I met had discovered the group on the internet, registered with the group on the internet and been organised and directed by the group through online social media. The internet is important to the post-80s generation and it is also important to the nascent civil society that has grown up directly alongside it.

One small part of this growing civil society was stuttering to a temporary halt as Dr Chen parked his car outside the gates of the Old People’s Home. We had passed through a mile or so of rice paddies to get there, the still water of the fields mirroring the dispersing clouds above. I had been told this area was ‘poor’ but it looked the way much of modern rural China does - getting richer - with schoolchildren walking along verges, old people working in fields, chickens in the road.  I had been to several urban ‘homes’ before but never a rural one. Nevertheless this one appeared similar, with its rows of dormitories, shared bedrooms and bathrooms, matronly staff and outdoor activities; the hubs of the communal living that had delineated the entire lives of the residents. Despite their occasional grim appearance they had always seemed to me to be relatively happy places; the residents continuing to pursue the rhythms of normal life, unlike in the torpid ‘waiting-rooms’ that I had been to back home. 

Some of these residents met us at the gates as Mrs Lin handed out the dreaded red baseball caps that I had known were coming. These are not the cool kind of cap; no trans-American truck driver or bearded urban poet would be seen dead in one. They are the kind of cheap floppy hats that Chinese tour groups wear en-masse to distinguish themselves from the dozens of other hat-wearing groups around them. I automatically tried to roll a curve into the peak of the curve but it creased into a v-shape to make the hat even less cool. As I did so, Dr Chen set up an old wooden table in the dusty yard outside the kitchen and laid out his stethoscope and blood pressure monitors. One of the members of staff handed him a clipboard with the details of all the residents listed on it. These details would be listed on state registers too; whilst state welfare has retracted in many sectors the state still provides limited services for the elderly. However, in a rapidly ageing population, many more Dr Chens will be needed. 

The elderly are not the only sector of the Chinese population that civil society might assist in this way. The environment, civil liberties, migrant workers, the disabled, LGBT rights, domestic abuse; the list goes on. The state is allowing civil society groups to develop, as long as their remits stay strictly within the space that the state gives them. There is not yet the legislative framework to guarantee this space, therefore civil society organisations must pick and choose their targets and methods carefully. Today’s group dealt with old people; a relatively safe option. It was set up by one of Mrs Lin’s friends; a middle-aged woman who lives on the outskirts of the city. She had considered that not enough was being done to help the elderly poor and started the group in 2010. It doesn’t have an office and it’s not registered with the state. It doesn’t receive tax-breaks or help from big business. It must tread carefully around a state that still eyes autonomous organisation with suspicion. What it does have is a box of hats, a network of contacts and a presence on QQ, the instant messaging service that has penetrated deep into the fabric of Chinese life. The organisation uses the group function of QQ to disseminate information and organise for action. Most internet users below the age of forty-five in China will have a QQ account; it was how Lili contacted them.

Having found the group, Lili was listening to Mrs Lin as she explained the four tasks that were to be accomplished today: haircuts, blood pressure monitoring, Chinese New Year decorations and lastly a performance.  I had been dreading the performance more than wearing the hat. It would inevitably involve me, as the only foreigner, being asked to sing in front of the group. In these situations I usually sang Waltzing Matilda or We Wish you a Merry Christmas, for some strange reason the lyrics of these two songs being the only ones I can remember under the intense stares of the elderly. As the performance was last on the schedule I had the morning to prepare my renditions. Luckily for the health and dignity of the residents I was put on decorations duty.

As I stuck the upside-down characters for luck and prosperity onto the frosty windows of the dormitories, I chatted to the volunteer next to me. His name was Liwei and he was in his early twenties. I asked him why he was here and in a quiet voice he told me how he had got involved in volunteering after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and never looked back. The modern Chinese word for volunteering, zhiyuanzhe, is a relatively new one; some of the residents of the Home would not have understood its meaning. However, recent widespread volunteer activity during the earthquake response, the Beijing Olympics, Guanzhou Asian Games and the Shanghai Expo has ensured zhiyuanzhe massive and unprecedented coverage over the past five years.  Liwei was a member of several other volunteer groups as well and he loved to spend one day of his weekend volunteering. ‘Why?’ I said, why give up your precious free time? Because, he said, after Wenchuan, I began to realise that I could do something. I began to see that there were groups that needed help, that the government wasn’t doing enough to help. As Solidarnosc came to mind, I asked him; how do you see the group in relation to the government? Oh, we are helping them, Liwei answered, they accomplish the big tasks and we fill in the gaps. Having run out of decorations, I pondered this response, a very typical one, as I stepped around the corner to be confronted with the sight of a row of grinning Chinese octogenarians in various stages of having their heads shaved. Mrs Lin, razor in hand, called to me to say that the performance would start in five minutes. I pulled my embarrassment of a cap further over my eyes. 

Everyone gathered in the communal kitchen, sitting in a crescent of chairs arranged facing the performance area. Volunteers and staff positioned themselves at intervals within the group of old men and women who sat dozing in their army greatcoats and down jackets. First up would be a rendition by Mrs Lin who came to the front and sang a famous pop song from the 90’s. The volunteers clapped furiously but the reception from the elderly contingent was muted. Next was a duet by two married volunteers who sang a Hong Kong love song. Once again: applause from the volunteers, apathy from the residents. Then Dr Chen stood up and handed out song sheets to the remaining volunteers who assembled in a group. He beckoned me to stand with them; ‘perfect’ I thought, I can lose myself in the anonymity of the group. As the volunteers started singing and I started miming, the residents began to stir. The songs on the sheet were old communist songs from their youth. Seeing the response, the volunteers sang with increasing gusto, singing lines about red flags and Mao’s generosity into the frosty air. Old men and women who had seen so much change in their lives - warlords, republicans, invasions, retreats, Red Guards, with the most recent addition of an embarrassed tuneless foreigner - began to smile and sing and clap along.

It is this recurring narrative of change that is key to understanding China’s relationship with civil society. In the 20th Century, Chinese society was subjected to more extreme changes than any on earth as its elites swung between political and economic extremes and its norms and values were challenged from all angles. The twenty-first century society that has emerged from that chaotic period is only now beginning to process that change. Understandably it also craves stability. According to the Marxist dogma that these residents grew up with, civil society is a tool of the bourgeois that must be stopped. As described by the neo-Tocquevillian ideas that dominate neo-liberal thought, it is a bulwark against a tyrannical state that must be encouraged. And yet both these conceptions are far removed from my experiences volunteering within the Chinese civil society that exists today.

China's "Outside People" - Moving from Countryside to City

Demotix/Steve Barru.Moving from the countryside to the city. All rights reserved.

Organisations, out of necessity, still cannot position themselves against the state. However, many of the individuals that participate within those organisations also believe their activities to be in line with the state. It is gap-filling that they consider themselves to be doing, not organising for democratic transition. True, there are some groups involved with political advocacy, but they make up a very small part of the civil society that exists. There are a thousand groups trimming old men’s hair for every Chen Guangcheng.  Chinese society has changed so much that it is only slowly developing a relationship with civil society. Trust, capacity building and public awareness are important for developing this relationship. Awareness is developing through the internet. Trust will come as society becomes used to the idea of autonomous action. Capacity is increasing as more people get involved and social media gives organisations the tools to organise. 

On the way home we stopped at a fish restaurant to eat a late lunch. Alongside using her chopsticks to drop fish heads into my bowl, Mrs Lin led a discussion of the morning’s activity; what went right and what could be improved. Next week there would be another activity in a different village and she reminded everyone to remember to confirm their attendance on QQ. I planned to go and this time I would remember to bring a flask of coffee and to not sit next to Mrs Lin if we ate fish. Liwei, Dr Chen and Lili would also go. Other new volunteers will no doubt go as well as they find out about the group online or through friends. As she concluded the session, someone pointed out to Mrs Lin that she had a clump of old man’s hair clinging to her western-style, made-in-China coat. We laughed as she shook it off.

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