November 1, 2009
In this blog, I hope to put a human face on the emerging NGO scene by profiling some of the NGO founders and activists I’ve met and interviewed for my research on NGOs.
I’d like to start out with a profile of a young man I met in Kunming. His name is Lu Fei. He’s not one of the better known activists out there, but he’s an interesting character and has done a great deal for civil society organizations and social causes for someone so young. He’s really an atypical Chinese youth, but also at the forefront of a growing interest among many Chinese youths in volunteerism and social issues.
I met Lu Fei at my hotel room near Yunnan University. I had called him because he was mentioned as one of the founders of NGOCN Development and Exchange Network (NGOCN Fazhan Jiaoliu Wang), otherwise known by its website address, ngocn.org. NGOCN is one of the most popular and widely used communication platforms serving NGOs in China. Like its Beijing counterpart, China Development Brief, NGOCN posts articles, job listings, news about conferences and funding opportunities, and a regular newsletter on the NGO/nonprofit sector.
I was surprised by Lu Fei’s youth. He looked like your typical college computer science student, spiky hair, not much of a fashion or social sense, and a dreamy look in his eyes. But when he started talking, you began to realize he was more a doer than a dreamer.
Lu Fei started NGOCN with a friend, Ben Li, in January of 2005 when they were both working in the Kunming office of Oxfam Hong Kong. They felt international NGOs had a dominant presence in Yunnan, and wanted to create a platform to promote the growth of domestic NGOs in China. In the first year, they relief on volunteers to run the office. In 2006, he left Oxfam and went to work full time for NGOCN with funding from Oxfam.
Lu was only in his mid 20s when he started NGOCN but he surprised me when he told me NGOCN was the fourth organization he’d started. He started his first venture after he graduated from high school and spent the summer travelling in the west of China and seeing the obstacles to education in poor areas. He decided to set up a fund using the internet to raise money for disadvantaged children in western China.
Lu spent one year in college in Beijing, majoring first in computer science, then in public administration, but then dropped out and went travelling in Tibet. There he saw many children who lacked books, so he and a friend started a website to contact publishers, friends and others to contribute books to schools in Tibet. He would track the books to make sure they got to the children.
In 2004, he returned home to Guangdong and started an organization with some friends devoted to poverty relief. He had some differences of opinion though with the board of directors and left soon after.
Lu tells me his parents haven’t approved of the direction he’s taken his life. When I asked him what his parents do, he said they work for the Civil Affairs bureau in Guangdong, the government agency that regulates NGOs.
Days after that interview, I went to Chengdu to interview NGOs there about their response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. There I found that Lu was responsible for organizing what turned out to be largest NGO network in response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. On the day of the earthquake, he contacted a number of NGOs who got together and formed the Sichuan NGO Earthquake Relief Coordinating Office (Sichuan minjian jiuzai lianhe bangongshi). This was a virtual network of NGOs formed to secure and deliver supplies from around the country to the earthquake areas. Within a few days, it grew to include more than 100 organizations, and distributed more than
Lu never mentioned his role in this network to me, and it has never been mentioned in the many articles I’ve read about the participation of NGOs in the earthquake relief. But I count it as another important achievement in Lu’s short career as an NGO activist.