Difference Maker

Deng Fei goes beyond journalism to right wrongs in China

Once a top investigative reporter in China, Deng Fei now writes a popular microblog that moves readers to action.

By , Staff writer

Investigative reporter Deng Fei won plaudits and nearly 3 million Chinese microblog followers with a string of articles on sensitive topics such as child trafficking, organ harvesting from death-penalty victims, and shoddy school construction.

Now he is parlaying his reputation into a groundbreaking project to turn his readers into active agents of social change in China. And he is changing the face of Chinese philanthropy as he does so.

Last year Mr. Deng gave up journalism, including his job at a Hong Kong magazine, and put his blogs to another use. He launched a charity to help provide lunches to rural schoolchildren free of charge. Within six months he had raised $3.7 million from individual donors who knew his reporting work and trusted him with their money.

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"Journalists can do more than just write articles. They can take action," Deng says. "I reported on the secret dark side of China, so I know what the problems are. As a journalist and as a citizen, I have a responsibility to try to solve those problems."

Deng made his name over the past 10 years with articles published in Phoenix magazine in Hong Kong, where censorship is not the problem it is in mainland China. He magnified the articles' impact several thousandfold by posting them on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service with Facebook elements, and Tencent, another massively popular social networking site.

But it was an incident in 2010 that opened his eyes to the potential of these new tools. A fellow journalist told Deng he had just received a phone call from two young women on their way to Beijing to petition the government to save their home from expropriation. They had been waylaid in the bathroom at Nanchang Airport by the local Communist Party chief, who was preventing them from leaving.

Deng called the young women and began live blogging about their confrontation with the official.

Then he took an unusual step for a journalist. Learning that three of the women's relatives had set fire to themselves to protest the destruction of their home and that two of them required hospital treatment, he asked people who had followed his live blogging to send him money to pay for the women's medical care. They did.

"That was when I saw the power of new media to organize and encourage people to do things in line with the public interest and human nature," he says. "This may change the definition of a journalist.

"In China you can write articles, but they don't often change things. We need action, and the government reacts very slowly to social problems."

Last year Deng met a rural teacher who explained that there was no cafeteria and that many of her pupils went hungry at noon. He visited the school, and when he discovered that this was a nationwide problem, he decided to do something about it.

He mobilized several hundred reporters to write about the issue. He posted photos of hungry children. And he asked his followers on Weibo and Tencent to send donations to a bank account he had opened.

Money poured in.

Charities in China tend to be faceless bureaucracies that reveal little of what they do with the money they collect, says Wang Zhenyao, head of the One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute at Beijing Normal University: "They've got a lot of problems, and recent scandals have engendered public mistrust."

Last June a young woman saying she was a Red Cross manager posted photographs on her website depicting herself with her new Maserati sports car. Though she turned out not to be a Red Cross employee, the resulting uproar sent contributions to all Chinese charities plummeting.

Deng's microblog differs because it "is a very direct tool of communication between the charity and the public," Professor Wang points out. "The charity can tell people a lot about what they are doing," and donors can read messages from the children they are helping to feed.

Each of the 110 schools Deng's charity is helping has to open a blog account and post details about how much money it has received and how it has been spent.

Deng is proudest, however, that his success has goaded the government into action. Last October, the cabinet announced it was allocating $2.5 billion for a "nutrition improvement plan" to provide a basic lunch to 26 million rural schoolchildren.

Deng doesn't claim credit, but he says he was pleasantly surprised. "We didn't expect the state to react so quickly," he says. "But they were encouraged by the mass participation in our project."

"I'd like to be an explorer," Deng adds, "to find problems, expose them, and help the government to solve them."

That is not always going to happen. For example, social activists were jailed for revealing how local government corruption and slovenliness resulted in the death of schoolchildren when poorly built schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The pressure, he says, will have to come from ordinary Chinese citizens.

"China has a very centralized system, and many decisionmakers don't know how serious social problems are," he says. "Young people using new media is the only way China will change."

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