What motivates a change artist? I’m sure part of it is a sense of positive power and a belief that the actions of one person can create change. Perhaps it’s an ability to see things differently than everyone else and a desire to realize that difference. Or maybe it’s just a deeply felt sense of fairness – and outrage when innocent people are hurt. Perhaps for all of these reasons this man, Hong Kong native Deng Fei, is a change artist extraordinaire.
His story starts a few years ago, in rural China.
Here’s some background to the problem he tried to solve, by NPR’s Louisa Lim.
For 10-year-old student Xie Xiaoyuan, just getting to school is an ordeal. On a recent day, her frostbitten ears are testament to just how difficult the trip is.
“I get up at five o’clock,” she says, “then I comb my hair and start walking.”
Xie navigates a mountain path in China’s remote Shaanxi province in the dark, trudging through snowstorms and mudslides. Then she has to get a bus for about 10 miles. She hasn’t time to eat breakfast.
“For lunch, I spend 15 cents on two pieces of bread and a drink,” she says.
For Xie, those two pieces of bread used to be all she ate until dinner at home at 5 p.m. That’s all her family can afford, with their combined income of about $120 a month providing for five people.
Many of her fellow students at Hujiaying primary school in Shaanxi province’s Nanzheng county go hungry every day.
A local group tried to get news organizations to report on the children’s plight. One of the journalists they contacted was Deng Fei.
In his mid-thirties, Deng Fei worked for Phoenix Weekly Magazine, written in Hong Kong and distributed on the Mainland. For ten years he investigated and delivered over a hundred articles exploring some of the dark recesses of Chinese society.
He wrote ground-breaking articles about China’s social issues, especially hardships faced by the nation’s women and children. He also published his pieces via his microblog on Weibo.com – people trusted him and he’d gained a following.
Becoming a Change Artist
Everything ramped up in 2010 – when he became a change artist. Deng had learned that two young women, fighting to keep their home from being expropriated, were on their way to petition the government when they were waylaid by a local official in an airport bathroom and prevented from leaving.
Deng called the young women and started live blogging about their situation. Here’s what happened next, reported by the Christian Science Monitor:
Learning that three of the women’s relatives had set fire to themselves to protest the destruction of their home and that two of them required hospital treatment, he asked people who had followed his live blogging to send him money to pay for the women’s medical care. They did.
“That was when I saw the power of new media to organize and encourage people to do things in line with the public interest and human nature,” he says. “This may change the definition of a journalist.”
“In China you can write articles, but they don’t often change things. We need action, and the government reacts very slowly to social problems.”
Serving Hungry Children
The next year he learned about Xie Xiaoyuan and the many poor rural children who went without lunch at school – drinking cold water to fight off their hunger.
After visiting some schools he realized it was a national problem.
Through his microblog he reached out to his followers, encouraged other reporters to write about the problem and posted pictures of hungry children. Then he did something extraordinary – he left his position with Phoenix Weekly, opened a bank account and asked his Weibo followers to contribute to help feed the kids. The money poured in.
He also set up an elaborate system to guarantee transparency and ensure that all of the money he raised went to feed the school children.
Within six months he’d raised $3.7 million. Each of the 110 schools his charity helps must have their own blog and post details showing how much money they receive and how it’s spent.
The publicity surrounding his efforts spurred the government to get involved, announcing it will spend $2.5 billion to provide a basic lunch to 26 million rural schoolchildren. All because one man took it upon himself to act.
Deng Fei’s Story Captured in Video
Deng Fei’s story was captured in a video from GE’s Focus/Forward films. The video images of children baking potatoes illustrate what served for a meal for many of China’s rural schoolchildren before the free school lunch program was set up. As you’ll see, the video is well constructed and celebrates Deng Fei as a change artist.
I found Lixin Fan‘s video very powerful – fast moving, well shot and edited, the images very compelling and the portrayal of Deng very heroic. But it makes me a little uneasy, as if the filmmaker edited the story to put forward his own political point of view – touting the journalist as the lone figure standing up to government ineptitude. In emotional tone, the visual portrayal of Deng Fei reminds me of a political candidate’s biopic.
Visually and emotionally, I was moved by the piece and found the images of Deng Fei in the city, standing alone as the great man, very heroic. I’m sure it took some effort by filmmaker Lixin Fan to find a spot where he could portray Deng as the lone hero standing out from the crowd. It’s powerful filmmaking and a theme familiar to Western ears and eyes. But is there a little too much emphasis on Deng as heroic figure and too little on his motivation to make a better world? I’m not sure – perhaps there’s something important here that’s lost in translation or misinterpreted on my side of the cultural divide.
What Motivates a Change Artist?
But either way, I certainly don’t want to diminish what Deng Fei was able to accomplish. I salute him for his courage to make a difference. Perhaps in the end, that’s what makes a change artist, the need to act and make the world a better place.
Deng Fei, from China Today:
“It brings me a warm glow of accomplishment. Having previously had limited influence on readers and society as a journalist, I find microblogs are an effective tool for mobilizing people and accumulating resources to solve problems. China has no lack of writers, but what it needs is people who take action.”
So what do you think? Share your thoughts and leave a comment.