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Daniel Bell and his son Julien teaching in Beijing

Daniel Bell and his son, Julien, teaching together in Beijing

By Daniel A. Bell

China, as everybody knows, is not a politically free country. There are constraints on political activity and many social critics fall afoul of the system. The foreign press often reports on those cases, leading to the impression that it’s impossible to do any good outside of official channels. What is less well known, however, is that some areas of social life that were once politically taboo – such as the plight of migrant workers and environmental concerns – are now openly discussed in the Chinese media. There are also a growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that do good work in those areas.

One such NGO in Beijing is called Xiezuozhe 协作者 (Facilitator) which came into being in the spring of 2003, when the SARS crisis hit Beijing. Today, it focuses mainly on the plight of migrant workers in large Chinese cities. Its methods are transparent and non-confrontational and it aims to be a constructive force for social change. The NGO gets funding from Chinese philanthropists and large Western companies, and a couple of years ago I joined my wife – a Chinese national who works for one of their donors – on an outing in a poor district in the outskirts of Beijing. I was impressed by what I saw – highly intelligent and sensitive young people clearly moved by the plight of migrant workers, listening to the workers and their children with respect and no hint of condescension, and thinking of practical ways of ameliorating their situation. So when I heard that they might be looking for English teachers to help with lessons for the children of migrant workers in the small lanes (hutong) of central Beijing, I jumped at the opportunity. My 14-year-old son Julien was also willing to help, and we volunteered as a father-son team.

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A few weeks ago, those of us based at UCI had the pleasure of hearing author Michael Meyer talk about his new book, The Last Days of Old Beijing. Accompanied by the evocative photos of Mark Leong, Meyer described his experience living in the ancient hutongs of central Beijing and how he tried to convey that experience–threatened by Beijing’s rapid development–in his recent book. Here, Tom Mullaney, who teaches history at Stanford, chats with Meyer about his book. Scroll down to enjoy Leong’s photos while you listen.

The character “chai” (to demolish) is painted on houses marked for demolition.

If you’d like to learn more, this video will give you a tour of Meyer’s Beijing neighborhood.

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