Gloria Ai Interviews Chen Xingjia | iAsk Public Welfare Leaders

Author: iAsk   

"On behalf of the half-million people in Badong, I am furious with the local bastards who accept bribes each worth hundreds of thousands of Chinese yuan. It is the public indignation in such a poor place! I would punish them on behalf of the Badong folks!"

Chen Xingjia criticized corrupt officials at a high-profile congress, which shocked the government. This offense also helped build his image of an honest and dedicated official.

An Internet Celebrity and County Secretary

In 2011 following his inauguration, Chen Xingjia spent less than three months visiting all the fourteen villages on the border of the Badong county. He did a thorough investigation of the county's poverty alleviation: Badong has a population of nearly 500,000 people, of which 420,000 are mountain inhabitants, including 172,900 people in poverty.

Badong is well recognized as a deep poverty county at a national level. Over 30% of its population is under the poverty line, with an average annual per capita income of less than 2,300 yuan. 

"I walked deep into that poor county. Hundreds of thousands of poor people were in sharp contrast to officials who took bribes of hundreds of thousands of yuan. It was hard to hold back the great anger!"

Born in 1971 in the Xiawan Village, High Bridge Township, Hubei province, Chen has a deep understanding about poverty. He doesn't have the heart to see the poor suffer.

On arrival in Badong and taking office as the Secretary of County Party Committee, Chen started a drastic reform:

The first initiative pointed to the illegal occupation of land and the phenomenon of "two violations" of illegal construction. In the face of risks and pressure, he commanded to investigate and punish more than 500 households with "two violations", and toppled the protection umbrella for illegal construction.

He continued to enforce the quality of construction and spent four months beating off the "bidding monopolist" in Badong construction projects for many years, and successively investigated into and settled cases on nine directors and deputy directors. During his term of office, four officials above the assistant section level were investigated and punished. Many other cadres at the branch level and more than 40 business owners were also investigated.

In order to promote local tourism, he parachuted from 3000 meters high to endorse Badong's tourism industry. He even gave the song performance "Love in Badong" himself, to save an endorsement fee of 200,000 yuan, which has made him an internet celebrity and secretary.

"Chen Xingjia is the least bureaucratic official I've ever met. He doesn't have an assistant holding his bag, serving him a cup of tea, opening the car door for him," one of the reporters who interviewed him said.

Now, Chen still keeps away from these "privileges". "When I'm an official, I don' t allow people to do these things for me, and I don't like the life of being attended. I think it's good to carry a bag myself."

Chen Xingjia's kindness to the world and his sympathy for others are from the sunny 1980s. In those emotional, bold and unrestricted years, his individuality was fully developed and presented.

And his compassion comes from his mother's earnest instruction since childhood.

As a child, Chen welcomed porters who traveled between the town and the village resting their feet at the Chen family's yard by the road. His mother always kept the yard spotless clean. Even when the porters sat on the floor, their clothes would not be stained. His mother also asked the young Chen to pour water for them to drink.

In the village, there was a very poor household, who often borrowed salt from the Chen family. However, the borrower rarely gave the salt back. Chen was puzzled and asked his mother: "They always borrow from us. Why do they never return anything?" His mother was upset because of his words: "Nobody will borrow salt unless they have no choices! If we don't lend it to her, nobody will."

Following his mother, Chen was influenced by what he saw and heard. At a very young age, he understood how to treat others with benevolence. His mother's teaching also allows him to follow his heart to make choices in his life.

A Philanthropic Journey

At the end of his term in Badong, Chen was promoted to State Leader by the Hubei Provincial Party Committee. However, he made a resolute choice of resignation.

On Dec. 2, 2016, Chen posted on his WeChat moments that he would leave Badong. Chen proved that he didn't mean to gain political capital with his past deeds, to those who framed him up.

"I'm tired of wearing a mask to live as a man and work an official," Chen sighed. As a literati surrounded by poetry and music since youth, Chen always has an idealistic, emotional, and free soul.

When faced with important choices in life, such as my decision to resign, or there are disturbing rumors out there, I will go back to the countryside where I was born and raised. I sweep my mother's grave, revisit the fields where I walked barefoot as a child. I feel a special love, which may be the sentiment about my root and the land. I would like to stand on this land for the rest of my life. That's the reason why I choose to do philanthropy and stand with disadvantaged groups.

Chen also reflected on himself: "Sometimes I wonder why I am so unrepentant to follow my heart? A university degree has given me a chance to see the world, know the world, and to find myself in this world. I am particularly grateful to my mother and the mountain village."

Wherever he went, he remembered his mother's words when they walked at night, which taught him to "advance forward and never turn back." Perhaps the mountain son Chen always follows the guide of his mother and the mountain spirit.

Bidding farewell to the earlier days of life, Chen embarked on the philanthropic journey.

In May 2017, Chen initiated to found the Shenzhen Henghui Children's Charity Foundation and served as Chairman and Secretary-General. Thus began the second leg of his life, focusing on the people, rural public welfare, and children's education in poverty-stricken areas. He has become an "amphibious" philanthropist who is familiar with both government system and grassroots life.

Philanthropy may complement to the government function in areas where authorities are hard and can't get involved.

In Chen Xingjia's view, government work has its limit. It cannot and should not cover everything in society. When some problems and difficult pain points appear, philanthropic organizations can play a great role as a supplement.

Setting up a new philanthropic organization is as tough as pursuing entrepreneurship. Despite the difficulties, his past conscientious political experience was a great strength for him in doing philanthropy.

"The image of a good official in the past is valuable. People trust my philanthropic work."

Hearing that Chen resigned, an entrepreneur visited and offered him an annual salary of 4 million yuan to invite him to join his company. Chen sincerely told him that his aim was not making money or doing business, but starting more meaningful things. The entrepreneur was touched and directly donated 10 million yuan to encourage him to keep the dare and boldness to try.

After plunging into the philanthropic service, Chen  took immediate actions in three aspects:

In the China Global Philanthropy Institute of Shenzhen, Chen took on a research and teaching position, engaged in social policy research in public welfare, and responsible for a major relief program for children with serious illnesses.

As one of the sponsors, he helped launch the Henghui Children's Charity Foundation in Shenzhen, which focuses on relief programs for children with serious illnesses.

Chen also worked with his business partner Zheng Chen and the New Sunshine Charity Foundation to launch the United Love Project to eliminate poverty from diseases in modern China.

Statistics shows since China's introduction of precision poverty alleviation in 2013, the poverty population in rural China has decreased from 98.99 million at the end of 2012 to 16.6 million, with a cumulative decrease of 82.39 million people, and the incidence of poverty has fallen by 8.2%.

"By 2020, China will eradicate absolute poverty in all aspects, but what will follow? We notice that absolute poverty comes to an end, while relative poverty is still prominent. How to make people willing and motivated to get rid of poverty is the next and more important issue," Chen's concern is revealed between the lines.

The core of the new philanthropy is to teach people how to master a skill.

Raising funds from the rich to pay for medical expenses of the poor is not Chen Xingjia's top priority. He hopes to spend 90% of the time on more important things:

With philanthropy, he would like to conduct a social experiment, to collect all the data from the sick children, the government, and rural areas, which are all related to the disease. Chen Xingjia's vision is to establish a database to find a regular solution to poverty caused by diseases.

For the treatment of childhood leukemia, there are two kinds of high-quality medicine, which are wildly used but extremely expensive, not in the social welfare reimbursement catalog. It has become a stone on his heart.

Last year, Chen visited the Director of the National Healthcare Security Administration to strive for a bright ending:

Both drugs are now included in the national medical catalog. One is a cancer drug, which is a kind of mandatory medicine for more than 80 million patients a year. The new inclusion will save 240 million yuan for cancer patients nationwide.

His long-term government work experience has become a special advantage for Chen to benefit public welfare. I know how to work closely with the government. Now I see the boundaries of government and social organizations more clearly, which helps me to seize opportunities accurately."

In Heyuan, Guangdong province, Chen only spent half an hour persuading the Party Secretary to agree on a local pilot. In Qinghai province, he wrote to the Deputy Governor who immediately signed after reading Chen's letter.

In the past few years, Chen has done a lot of great things, but he always looked at himself as "a new recruit of philanthropy." 

Chen Xingjia's efforts have been witnessed by the people who love and trust him. He has also set a new example for the public about a government official's transformation to a philanthropist.

Since 2017, he has been selected as one of "the top ten philanthropic figures of the year" by Phoenix New Media, one of "the top ten social promoters in China" by Chinese Philanthropists magazine. In December 2018, Chen was also on the list of "the philanthropic figures of the year" by the China Philanthropy Times.

The profile of philanthropy alone is not what Chen cares most. His biggest goal is to distinguish the different roles of government and social forces in poverty alleviation through philanthropic foundations. On the one hand, the government provides the infrastructure for the development of production and ensure the extremely vulnerable live above a subsistent level. On the other hand, social forces such as enterprises and philanthropic organizations provide an effective supplement to what the government can not, find difficult or have no time to take care. And the Shenzhen Henghui Children's Charity Foundation he founded, is such a pioneer and pilot.

"Do what you think is right in rainy or sunny days." as Chen Xingjia promised, he would continue to advance in the philanthropic journey.


Gloria Ai: You started to work in 1992 and joined the Party in 1995. Your career was always Party centered and seemed smooth. In 2011, you took office as the Mayor of Yidu City, which would embrace the highlight of your political life. But at the end of 2011, you became the County Secretary of Badong, a county in deep poverty, located in Enshi Prefecture, Hubei Province.

Is that organized by the Party Committee? Is it normal for a mayor transferred to be a secretary?

Chen Xingjia: Yes, there is.

Gloria Ai: Why were you transferred to a county in deep poverty? Is this requested by the Organization, or did you apply on your own initiative?

Chen Xingjia: That's because, before I went there, the Badong County had made a national sensation for three years in a row. Every year, there was a shocking case happening, big enough to alarm the central government. The malignant events were conducted by a vicious group. I was like a fighter against those scoundrels.

It was in 2011 when the 18th National Congress had not been held. We didn't have an overall anti-corruption system. The provincial party committee might find that Badong's social ecology was sick, so they decided not to select local cadres, but to find candidates within the province, preferring those distinguished and young.

My background is a Tsinghua University graduate, the mayor of one of the 100 advanced cities in China, and almost the youngest mayor of the province, so I was lucky to be chosen.

Gloria Ai: Why do you think it is luck?

Chen Xingjia: It proved that the Organization trusted in my capacity. My life experience therefore became rich, so I was very lucky.

Gloria Ai: During your five years in office, what kind of environment was in Badong on your arrival? Was this unexpected guest welcomed?

Chen Xingjia: I was welcomed by the local people, but not by some of the officials. For example, an outsider like me directly suppressed the opportunities for local cadres to get promoted. I became the Secretary of the County Party Committee, which blocked the way up for a long queue of cadres.

Gloria Ai: When it comes to Badong, I saw loving shines in your eyes. Why?

Chen Xingjia: I have connections with that place, where I devoted fully to it for five years and two months. I would like to use the words in my article "Goodbye, My Padang" published when I left the county: "I dare not say that I have lived up to the exceptions of the local citizen, but I dare say that I always follow my heart. I dare to say that I am a County Secretary who never accepts bribes. I dare to say that I have done my best!"

Hearing these words, you can probably understand my connection to that place.

Gloria Ai: Your career started in your hometown, a mountain village in Hubei province, from an ordinary person to the Head of Town, then to the Deputy Secretary, from Mayor to Secretary of the County Party. The experience has paved way for your official career. Then why, I am still puzzled, after you were promoted, but you changed the direction to philanthropy?

Chen Xingjia: The most real thoughts in my mind made me see clearly a blue ocean in China's society. There is a hard demand where philanthropy can play a full role.

In 2005 and 2006, I was at the University of Chicago to get a very close interaction with the vitality of Western society, which is not the dying and decaying look we imagined.

Why?

Its social governance structure is reasonable.

In China, we are used to have government as the prior sector and market as the secondary sector to solve all the problems. But you would notice in a developed country, there are three departments – government, market and a third sector philanthropic organizations. Social organizations represented by the philanthropic forces can help solve a lot of problems.

When I was the Secretary of the County Party Committee in the deep poverty county at the national level, I felt the powerful support of the party committee and government and could do a lot of things. Moreover, I realized that the party committee and government cannot do everything, sometimes they could be helpless. Meanwhile, I found that philanthropic organizations could play a role in many aspects. I have made lots of innovative movements in rural poverty alleviation by cooperating with many philanthropic organizations. I found they could play a special role in some points. Thus I made up my mind to go for philanthropy.

But in China as a whole, philanthropy is a blue ocean. I want to be a real grass root and civilian. I just want to be a grass-root educator and rural contributor like Yan Yangchu, which is my biggest hope.

Gloria Ai: From an official to one of the common civilian, when you turn to philanthropy, do you have less followers, or does your work become more difficult? 

Chen Xingjia: Both judgments you mentioned are true.

Gloria Ai: Is it a drop? 

Chen Xingjia: There are fewer people listening to me, and I have more difficulties. There must be a drop, but I figured it out, and I feel alright.

I used to have a team surrounding and working for me. Then I carried my bag to Shenzhen and rented a room. Now I take subway every day. To save money, I am even reluctant to take a taxi. But I have a thorough consideration, so it is alright. I won't call it a drop.

Gloria Ai: Since you started Henghui Children's Charity Foundation in 2017, it has been three years. Do you find it difficult to do philanthropic work in China?

Chen Xingjia: It's very difficult. China's philanthropy is still underdeveloped.

The overall GDP in China exceeded 90 trillion yuan ($13.6 trillion) in 2018, and that of the United States was $20.5 trillion. At the national level, the wealth of the two countries is comparable.

At the corporate level, we find 120 Chinese companies on the world's top 500 list in 2018, compared with 126 in the United States, which is also almost parallel.

In terms of consumption, the McKinsey report shows that Chinese bought a third of the world's luxury goods in 2018. Chinese people are also getting rich in terms of public wealth.

What on earth is the tremendous gap? It's about philanthropic donations.

In 2018, China's public donations totaled 112.8 billion yuan. And the United States is at 427.71 billion dollars, which is 26 times that of China. What a big difference it is!

Gloria Ai: What has created the big gap between Chinese and American philanthropic donations in your opinion?

Chen Xingjia: Wealth, love, and suffering can all be found in Chinese folks. We have the "three elements", but why philanthropic performance is only 1/26 of the United States? We lack platforms and channels for participation.

Gloria Ai: Platforms and participation channels are just a kind of form. The deeper reason underneath, I think, is the lack of trust by the public.

Chen Xingjia: Correct. Trust is the lifeblood of the philanthropic course.

I have the advantage of doing philanthropy. In front of the camera, I can strike on my chest and said that I was an honest and upright official.

The social image shaped in the past carries the gene of trust. After three years in philanthropy, I have gotten too much trust. I am grateful to those who were complete strangers but believed in me.

Gloria Ai: You want to enlarge the influence based on your personal credit with the help of a philanthropic platform, to invite more people to participate in philanthropy, right?

Chen Xingjia: I'm not conceited at all.

In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to the married couple Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and professor Michael Kremer at Harvard University for their achievements in poverty alleviation experiments in poor areas.

This made me very excited. Tears filled my eyes. I found the book Poor Economics written by the Banerjee couple over the night and finished reading on the third day when I was on the plane.

I would like to conduct the poverty alleviation experiment 2.0.

My approach is to connect the government and social forces, to implement some developed and comprehensive social experiments in a poverty-stricken area, to explore a fundamental way to solve the problem of poverty. I am working on two philanthropic projects—United Love Project and Dream Corps. The former is a relief project for children with serious illnesses and the latter focuses on providing education care for children in poor families. It's not about simply raising funds from the rich to pay for the poor. It carries a nature of social experimentation in the middle.

Gloria Ai: To do philanthropy, what kind of help do you need?

Chen Xingjia: We need funds and dissemination.

The highest demand is financial support. Without funds, philanthropy is unable to reach the weak end, who are in need of help.

It also needs public attention, the moral support, and the spiritual support of volunteers, which are what I need.

What is the goal for my philanthropic organization?

I want to be the most transparent and efficient philanthropic organization in China.

The key word is transparency, which means as long as you donate, support my programs, you will know exactly where every penny goes. The second point is efficiency. I hope the poverty alleviation experiment 2.0 can help enhance the comprehensive social efficiency in the field where I have brought philanthropy in, rather than simply paying for the bills.

If I just tell stories of the suffering of the poor, after winning the sympathy of the rich, to give money to the poor, I think that would be no difference with a beggar in the old society, kneeling on the roadside to ask for pity, food, and coins to pay for tuition or medical expenses. That's just a licensed beggar.

I am convinced that the poverty alleviation experiment 2.0 can contribute to the philanthropy and promote China's overall social governance system. It is what I am working on.

Gloria Ai: To foresee the future, where will you be in ten years? What will your philanthropic organization develop into?

Chen Xingjia: I hope with the philanthropic projects I have done, we generate a replicable model, which can take place in many parts of the country. It will help to solve the social problem of poverty caused by illnesses throughout China. My hope is to achieve this goal in a decade.

It is a goal of myself and my organization, Henghui Children's Charity Foundation. I look forward to being interviewed by Gloria Ai again ten years later, when you come back to ask whether I made it.

Gloria Ai: Okay, for the ten years' appointment, I look forward to seeing you.

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