A philanthropic e-commerce project provides financial aid to the families of Chinese political prisoners
It’s a common name, Butcher’s Shop, and it has become a popular page on taobao.com, which literally means the “looking-for-treasure website.” Comparable to eBay, taobao.com is one of the most popular commercial websites in China. Butcher’s Shop was created by a diligent writer and blogger, “fleshy Tang monk,” whose name is taken from the protagonist of the Chinese classic Journey to the West. But behind the beefy matter, there is a loose organization, the so-called Rice-Delivery-Party. Yet it has nothing to do with catering, nor edible stuff. No, it’s a group, but given the particular nature of the party’s structure, it’s difficult to say how many members it has—maybe ten, or one hundred, or even ten thousand. It sounds surreal, but it is truly down to earth.
I just met with the new head of the Rice-Delivery-Party, Ye Fu, the prominent writer from Beijing. Currently he is in Cologne, Germany on a one year writer-in-residence project with the Academy of the Art of the World. Ye Fu is an essayist, poet, and non-fiction writer. In 1989 he was involved in the June 4th protest and was sentenced to jail for six years. In 1995 he was released months earlier than expected. Soon he developed a career as a publisher, but after ten successful years in business he deserted commercial life and devoted himself to writing. At first his books were, to some extent, banned in China, but he’s been able to publish three of them in the last two years. In Taiwan, not only does he enthrall tens of thousands of readers, he also won the non-fiction literature prize at the 2010 Taipei International Book Exhibition.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
Ye Fu belongs to the Tujia-minority and his family have lived in Hubei province for generations. Several of his family members have committed suicide, including his grandfather, mother, and two aunts, as they became victims of the political purge and persecution during the Land Reform and the series of political campaigns in the 50s. This unusual and tragic family history has strongly impacted Ye Fu’s character and the style of his work. His writing is saturated with his strong sense of the past and present, his unmistakable yearning for social justice, and his elegant, subtle language. The understatement in his writing creates tension and beauty. As a knowledgeable and eloquent intellectual, Ye Fu also attracts large groups of fans on his blog.
But the writer does not want to be a pale theoretician. He is an engaged social activist, a spiritual leader of young and old. With the help of “fleshy Tang monk” he created the Butcher’s Shop. And, since a shop can only justify itself when it earns money, they offer three goods for sale online:
1. Publications written by members. Since many of the Rice-Delivery-Party members are writers, they provide electronic versions of their poems, stories, or commentaries for sale. When a reader clicks on a text, he or she automatically becomes a party member and pays one Chinese yuan. If one wants to donate more, he/she can click as many times as he/she wants.
2. Dating partners. Sometimes prominent personalities appear on the shop’s page for a bit. One can bid on a date with them (e.g. 2000 yuan) and the highest bidder can win the chance to join the person for dinner. The amount of the winning bid goes to the shop.
3. Authors also give 50 signed copies of their books to the shop for sale. Not only are the books given for free, the authors pay the postage. The profit goes to the shop.
Now an extra service has been offered to members. Whoever wants to sell any personal items or commercial merchandise can post it online. The shop gets a 10 % commission.
Whenever 120,000 yuan (approx. $19,500) is raised, a jury of nine random party members, selected from the customer list, holds a meeting. The jury members do some research and submit a list of three needy families of political prisoners. In the past 12 months, the Butcher’s Shop has helped eight families, each with the sum mentioned above.
The shop’s original ideas attract people. Since political prisoners are respected by common people, providing humanitarian help in such a win-win situation is very welcome. Many famous artists, public figures, and actors and actresses have offered their involvement and contribution. In past few months, the Butcher’s Shop has been flourishing, and money comes in quickly.
With a satisfactory smile, Ye Fu sighed: “It is not an NGO, nor a registered organization, nor a party. We’re in a gray area of legitimacy and the authority’s tolerance is temporary. For how long, I do not know.” Well, a party is a party, with or without a party constitution. At the moment, Rice-Delivery-Party, with its understated character of caritas, has united lots of sympathizers. However, sooner or later, the alarmed security police will come and crash this party. Yet, every child in China knows the proverb: “No prairie fire can destroy the grass; it shoots up again when the spring breeze blows.” Today a butcher’s shop, tomorrow a floral shop, the next day a pet beauty salon…the ideas of philanthropy with Chinese character will transcend the prohibition, and possibly also the producer of the prohibition.
Update: November 4, 2013
A week after speaking with Ye Fu, the Butcher’s Shop was shut down on taobao.com. On Ocotber 24 Ye Fu posted on his weibo account: “Apparently someone does not like our action of justice and philanthropy.” Well, this outcome is not surprising. Only, the fact that it happened so soon reflects the urgency of the authority’s anxiety. Yet, they will soon face another “shop” and the game will repeat and continue.