An Unlikely NGO, Unlikely to Stir Protest
Far away from the displays of military prowess at Tiananmen Square lie a number of cobwebbed communities of migrants. In a suburb of Beijing, an estimated 100,000 migrants raise families in brick huts of ten to twelve square meters. Tucked in the midst of these huts is a modest grassroots organization founded by Su, a celebrity migrant woman from Jiangsu who married into a Beijing residency card户口 but embraces the migrant community as her own. She chose to plant her organization in the suburbs because this is where the poor, unskilled migrants raise their families. Funded entirely by a modest grant from Oxfam Hong Kong, the organization opened a one classroom school for migrant children and three second hand clothing stores—a type of social entrepreneurship. But its biggest struggle is not funding; it is community mobilization.
Trust is a costly commodity. When Su first approached the community, the migrants were deeply suspicious of her intentions. Some suspected she was a Falungong practitioner or a salesperson for Amway. Nobody had a clue what a non-government organization was. “Commoners only trust the government,” said Su. “They cannot imagine any other type of organization because the government is in charge of absolutely everything.” So it was only after the organization had established ties with the neighborhood association 居委会 (the lowest branch of the government) that the migrants start to send their children to the school. Slowly, Su and her organization were embraced as part of the neighborhood and were deemed as ‘good people.’
But life on the margins is always full of uncertainty. And good people can quickly become suspects. The entire community is rumored to bull-dozed in the coming months by real estate developers, and if that happens, Su’s NGO will go down with the rest of the huts. Landlords are in a frantic rush to build extensions to the existing huts so they can claim more compensation from the developers. But their tenants—tens of thousands of migrants—will be driven even farther away from the city where they make their livelihoods.
Protest is not in the vocabulary of the migrants in this community. According to Su, encouraging them to articulate their grievances is like moving a mountain. The migrants themselves perceive community organizers to be trouble makers and anti-government rebels. They do not want to be associated with people who are at odds with authority. But their hesitancy is not just due to fear of repression. They are also held back, ironically, by a collective mentality: “It’s not just my hut that will be bulldozed; my neighbor and my neighbor’s neighbors’ huts are also going to be torn down.” So far, this mentality has stymied rather than provoked public grievances. Unlike the petitioners whose grievances are often individualized—these migrants are not indignant because being driven out happens to be a fate that everybody they know has fallen into. In this odd form of equality, an otherwise unjust policy is tolerated. Being driven out of their homes has become a normalized routine for these migrants, and it is unknown when they will, in Su’s words, “awaken from their slumber” to realize that they do have rights and that these rights have been violated.