Friday, April 27, 2018

The Humanity of the Z35 Hard Sleeper

I decided the other day to ride hard sleeper on the Z35 express train from Beijing to Guangzhou. Taking the train is a great way to see the country. China has one of the most extensive and best railways in the world. For long-distance travel, there are several classes of train. One is conventional, locomotive-pulled trains which have various levels of express and local service. The other is the high-speed or bullet trains which have made China the envy of other countries including the U.S. China started building their high-speed railways about 15 years ago and already has the most extensive high-speed system in the world.   

The conventional trains feature different classes of travel: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat. The soft sleeper has four bunks per compartment, two on either side, and the compartments can be closed for privacy. Hard sleeper has six bunks per compartment, three on either side, and the compartments cannot be closed. If riding hard sleeper is like being in the gritty city, soft sleeper has the feel of the quiet suburbs. The bullet trains and soft sleepers are more expensive, so people with less means or who want to save money generally take hard sleeper or even hard seat.

It’s been decades since I took hard sleeper, but I associate it with being with regular people, and wanted to take my time to see China’s countryside. The Z35 route goes through the central provinces of Hubei, Henan, Hebei and Hunan before arriving in Guangdong at China’s southern gateway, traveling a total of 2294 kilometers. 

Riding the Z35, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the same China I knew 30 years ago. Yes some things have changed. The hard sleeper compartments now have nicer linens and air conditioning, there is no smoking allowed in the compartments, and the trip from Beijing to Guangzhou takes only about 22 hours instead of two days.

But the people haven't changed much, and that was refreshing to see in a country where blocks of old buildings and alleyways are razed, and gleaming skyscrapers and efficient subway lines go up in their place, in a blink of an eye.

Passengers still struggled to get up and down the bunks, and rummaged around for places to place their suitcases. They sat in the narrow corridors looking at their phones, or lay on their bunks looking at their phones. They lined up at the hot water area to fill their thermoses. They waited patiently for the one bathroom in each car to disgorge its occupant. A few kids played around the feet of their parents. People’s belongings began to spill into the open on their bunks and in the corridors. The trash bin cover was conveniently stuck so people began piling their instant noodle containers and plastic bottles near the bathroom sink. 

The train attendants walked past sweeping the floor, cleaning the bathrooms which seemed to be constantly occupied, and pushing food carts through the corridor calling out the names of the foods – milk, yogurt, chicken leg and rice. One attendant made several sales pitches in our car for prunes from Xinjiang, and chrysanthemum tea from Anhui. 

One lady who boarded in Henan entered our compartment and looked for a place to put her suitcase. She was pretty and dressed smartly in high heels and a knee-high skirt. I made sure to dress comfortably in shorts, t-shirt and sandals but some preferred the more formal look despite the proletarian furnishings. When she didn’t see a space for her suitcase below the bottom bunks, she put her suitcase on the middle bunk. Then she climbed up, placing her feet on the metal footholds and pulled herself up.  Once on the bunk, she stood up and tried to put her suitcase in an opening above the top bunk. She had to stretch and an elderly gentlemen in a dress shirt and tie came over to help. I was sitting on the bottom bunk and feeling awkward because I could see up her skirt and I felt bad the old man had acted faster than me in lending a hand. The studious looking guy reading across from me was trying hard not to look at the scene, and I tried not to stare.  Then after some effort, she and the elderly guy managed to raise her suitcase into the opening, whereupon she settled back in her bunk, and made a call on her phone. The old guy also went back to his phone, sending encouraging, peppy audio texts to people I imagined were either friends or business partners that went something like “let’s get together sometime and talk” and “let’s help each other out, and improve our situation together!”

Watching these scenes play out, I couldn’t help but feel a common humanity in these moments, witnessing the same inefficiencies, foibles and concerns in Chinese today as I remembered 30 years ago. China may be on the way to becoming a global economic and technological power, but that ambition was not evident in the people in the hard sleeper section who were just trying to figure out how to get by, and pass the hours, in their cramped spaces. In confining us to close quarters over a long period of time, the hard sleeper had a kind of leveling effect, doing away with any pretense of status and privilege. The old guy in the dress shirt and tie, the pretty woman in high heels and skirt, they were all in the same bunk and bathroom as the rest of us. Now if they could just put aside their smart phones and start talking again.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Resources for contextualizing recent developments in philanthropy and civil society

I'm proud to announce the release of a set of infographics, graphs, timelines, factsheets and FAQs that I developed with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. You can find these resources on ICNL's website. The purpose of these resources is to help people understand the significance of recent developments in the philanthropy and civil society space in China. They are meant to complement a longer, more detailed China Philanthropy Law Report that I wrote and published with ICNL.

The idea behind these resources was to 1) provide context for the report, and 2) highlight the significance of the legal developments discussed in the report.

In terms of context, we wanted to provide a visual way to understand the universe of civil society actors affected by recent legislation, particularly for those unfamiliar with the Chinese civil society space. Thus one set of resources is a Universe of Chinese  and Overseas NGOs, and graphs showing the growth of Chinese NGOs since the 1990s.

Another part of the bigger picture is how these developments fit into the longer-term evolution of philanthropy and civil society, and its regulation, in China. Thus, another set of resources are two timelines, one a timeline on the rise of philanthropy and civil society in China, and another timeline on major developments in the regulations of philanthropy and civil society.

In highlighting the significance of the legal developments discussed in the ICNL report, we wanted to drive home how major legal developments starting in 2016 have substantially reshaped the philanthropy and civil society space in China. Thus, we developed three factsheets underlining major changes in the regulation of Chinese and Overseas NGOs after 2016.

Finally there are two sets of FAQs, one on the 2016 Charity Law and another on the 2016 Overseas NGO Law.

I hope these resources are useful for those who want to understand the importance of these very substantial changes that have taken place in the legal environment for philanthropy and civil society  in China over the past 2-3 years. Please share these resources if you think they would be helpful to others.