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The Wounded Dragon


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:52 pm

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“People have never wanted to block us. But they’re tentative, and hemming and hawing, especially the big hospitals,” says Swartz. “We have one very strong hospital relationship in central China where we’re getting a lot of good work done, because it’s a small hospital and they don’t care [about the politics]. They’re very pure. They just want to get the work done.” But the biggest and most resource-rich hospital in Chengdu—the largest city in Sichuan—doesn’t answer e-mails or respond to Handreach’s requests. They know, however, that the NGO is there, because they send burned children for treatment. “They’ve been giving us kids that they should be treating, because they have no other way to treat them because the parents can’t pay,” explains Swartz. “So they send patients to us with no follow-up and no institutional support for getting follow-up care for these children.”


There is a school of thought on Chinese civil society that says NGOs are now fulfilling needs that are not covered by the Chinese government but should be. Concurrently, many say, the Chinese government is starting to see NGOs as helpful service providers that can mitigate some of the harmful effects of the transition to a free-market system, and thus placate a restive population that might otherwise reject Communist Party rule. While most NGOs would be repulsed by the idea that their services may be strengthening China’s authoritarian system, in the short term the win-win perception is a positive development for China’s poorest.

Swartz identifies a second, less obvious, potential benefit to China from an emerging NGO sector: high-quality jobs for a growing glut of young, educated workers. NGOs could provide satisfying work for the growing number of idealistic and educated young Chinese that are interested in addressing the problems of their country. “China is going to have to employ these highly educated young people who are coming out of universities and graduate schools,” says Swartz. “NGOs are excellent ways to productively engage China’s best and brightest youth in solving the very complex problems with the nation; the environment, health care, education. By allowing a thriving NGO sector to flourish, the Chinese government is both addressing the needs of the issues themselves as well as the needs of the young people to be engaged meaningfully with solving those problems—without having to go through the government or the bureaucracy, and being able to be very hands-on. I think there’s a lot of young college and graduate school graduates who are coming out that want to be in NGOs, that want to do issue-based work. China is very strategically situated in Asia to be able to provide leadership in tackling some of these issues, like the environment, education, and health care. I’d love to see the Chinese government harvest that potential and start to engage meaningfully and substantively with young people in solving these problems.”

Every day the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg gauge China’s precarious support of US debt, fearing Beijing may pull the plug on its gargantuan purchases of Treasury bills. Talking heads expound on the new global economic order binding the US and China together. They invent words like “Chimerica” and devise ways for the two superpowers to pull the world out of the financial crisis. With no further context, a reader might envision a land filled with ambitious workers striving for American jobs, and a government that has perfected the art of capitalism to the point that the US will struggle to keep up. In reality, the Middle Kingdom has a great distance yet to go before its economic system should be admired. The Chinese people lack freedom, but equally important are the basic services—health care, quality education, a social safety net—that many are still doing without. If these failings linger, it will call into question the bravado China presents to the world.

For now, humanitarians like Brecken Chinn Swartz and her colleagues at Handreach are helping to close the gap that has emerged between the globalized China and the China that has been left behind. Thankfully, Beijing appears to be ever more tolerant of such efforts. Swartz and her dedicated team of Chinese nationals—and the Chinese expatriates and Westerners abroad supporting them—are helping to show Beijing that a committed group of individuals can make a positive difference outside of the government sphere. Swartz is just one woman, but thanks to a series of inspirational encounters, she is a living example of how one motivated person can change untold lives. Countless children in China that otherwise would be illiterate, immobile, or otherwise nonfunctional now have a chance to make something of themselves, and avoid a lifetime of depression and hopelessness.

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