Peoples of China

Serving Minority Groups in China through NGOs


Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, nestled against Tibet, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, is home to more than 17 million people of minority extraction, the highest density of minority peoples in all of China. Most of these are poor farmers living in the rugged mountains of this beautiful and remote region. Extremely few are aware of Christ’s love for them.

For various historical and cultural reasons, poverty has been a predominating reality in the life of a majority of these peoples for centuries. In spite of a recently strong trend on behalf of the government to deal effectively with the needs, signs of significant poverty remain. For example, the primary cause of neonatal death in Yunnan is still “failure to sever the umbilical cord with a sterile instrument,” and the primary causes of death in those under the age of five are still diarrhea and simple respiratory tract infections. Without reasonable access to medical care or schools to educate, adequate roads to bring the outside world’s assistance, or the ability to afford most things even where there is access, these people are held in bondage by the poverty cycle. The deadly synergism of centuries of poverty, destructive cultural/historical forces, alcoholism, corruption, prejudice, the remote, steep and forbidding terrain (which is difficult to farm effectively and has already been spoiled by erosion in most places), and minimal or no education forms a significant barrier to forward advance for many minority as well as for poor Han peoples. Industrious, hard-working lifestyles, which are often (though not always) present, are not enough, in this setting, to overcome the barriers.

During the past two decades, however, the government of China has begun to specifically emphasize the development of this region through infrastructure establishment, poverty alleviation programs, health and education advancement projects, microenterprise assistance, agricultural extension, erosion containment and various other assaults on poverty. A visible and sustained fight against corruption, the broad use of new agricultural concepts and technologies, increased access to better education and health care, and a generally increasing standard of living is clearly apparent at the village level in many parts of Yunnan. The need, however, is still immensely overwhelming. An openness on the part of the government to working together with foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is one of the keys to the advance. We have found a general desire among most officials to work in cooperation toward this end.

Cooperating with the government’s thrust into transformation of villages one by one has proven to be an excellent means of fulfilling Christ’s mandate to care for the poor as well as bringing His love to unreached peoples who have been dwelling in such dark circumstances. Governmental agencies such as the Poverty Alleviation Office, the Foreign Affairs Office, the Bureaus of Public Health, Education and Agriculture, the Disabled Federation, the Women’s Federation, and many others have welcomed our assistance in working together towards fulfilling the government’s mandate to increase the living standard of these minority peoples and other villagers who are in bondage to poverty. Working together at provincial, prefectural, county and township levels to promote and implement training, extension and assistance programs at the village level has proven both viable and effective. The number of invitations to extend the programs and work in new areas is overwhelming. The limiting factor has not been lack of openness to our presence, but rather our own ability to provide the broad number of human resources necessary to respond to the need.

Two decades of significant involvement with massive programs brought in by United Nations entities have had both positive and negative results. Though some relief has been effected, the tendency to think that giving away large amounts of money to governmental entities who then initiate and oversee projects is the norm. This approach to solving poverty problems has been relatively unproductive (because either the money is not spent on what it was given for or those in charge are unable to bring about the desired result), and one of the largest barriers NGOs have had to overcome. Most poverty problems are not as expensive to solve as many may think, and working this way teaches the government and the people that only huge sums of cash will deal with the issues. In this “UN culture” and system (which in practice encourages and promotes filling the departmental coffers of the various governmental agencies involved), NGOs without deep pockets or a willingness to “grease the skids” are sometimes scorned. Because of decades of such practices by the World Bank, the UN, etc., officials who discover that poverty alleviation will not be positively impacting their own personal or their office’s financial situation are often uninterested in further involvement. We have also encountered many church entities which, for the same reasons (this part has been promoted primarily by foreign Christian entities), think a large influx of cash is their biggest “need.”

Through involvement we have discovered, however, that there are two positive trends working against this tendency. Firstly, there is a quickly growing number of officials who are buying into the government’s push to truly fight against poverty. Secondly, finding ways of building an official’s “face” without bribing or filling his office’s coffers is a healthy and viable means of building cooperation. When the central government so strongly encourages a broad approach to the fight against poverty, many lower level cadres eventually figure out that they can indeed “gain” personally from simply being an advocate for and partner in such efforts. Recognition for helping the poor, and the ensuing promotions up the career ladder are positive forces which are clearly impacting the thinking of many officials with whom we work. Others are simply impacted by our positive example. We are finding a large number of government officials, doctors, teachers, Christians and other involved individuals who have developed a heartfelt desire to love and help their country by actually serving the poor with governmental resources.

This learning process is growing rapidly and the positive results are easily seen. There are always too many governmental entities with the mandate to overcome poverty who are anxious to receive us and build partnerships in actually caring for the poor for the right reasons. Here in Yunnan, for example, we find the Poverty Alleviation Office, our primary governmental partner, has no interest whatsoever in obtaining our project money for themselves or their offices. They contribute a portion of the cost to many projects. They do not seek to inflate the actual costs of projects and are pleased to see the job done for less investment. They are genuinely sincere in simply and aggressively pursuing the fulfillment of their mandate, which their name states. This sets a good example for lower level entities. Ten years ago, such an attitude was rare. Today it is spreading broadly. In one prefecture, the Communist Party Secretary (the top official) came to the capital city to see our work and became one of our best working partners. He procures cooperation and assistance for us from all who are under his authority and many who are not. Because of people and offices like those mentioned here, our plan and ability to train and teach local people to be the primary resource for providing the necessary aid to their own people is being received for the wise approach that it is.

To demonstrate China’s openness towards such cooperation, I would mention that the central government, in the year 2000, awarded our organization the China Friendship Award, the highest governmental honor China bestows on non-Chinese. Village doctor and village teacher training projects, agricultural extension agent training projects, physical and educational rehabilitation of the disabled, infrastructure establishment projects (roads, bridges, electricity, water and sewage systems, etc.), AIDS prevention education, income generation projects, caring for the leprosy-affected, and many other similar approaches to helping the poor are now being accepted, promoted and requested from most areas of the province. The central push to truly alleviate poverty is quickly building the pressure and desire to establish effective programs broadly at the local level. As the vision is received and the work gets underway, the realization that outside expertise can be a great help in realizing goals drives governmental entities to seek cooperation with NGOs. The true needs of the minority peoples are directly impacted on a daily basis. We are not the only NGO doing such work. Dozens of foreign Christian entities are finding this a viable way to serve the Lord and love the people.

Openly and honestly stating to our governmental partners (as well as to the people we are assisting) that we are Christians who care for the poor because Christ loves them and with financial resources supplied by Christian foundations and donors has built trust and friendship between ourselves and local officials. It also helps China understand that Christians, both national and foreign, might potentially be as great a help to their nation as Christians in other parts of the world have proven to be. We often point to Hong Kong as a great example of how Christian NGOs have cooperated with the government to care for the poor. Though there remains some tension as well as a partial difference of understanding and motivations between Christian poverty alleviation workers and our governmental colleagues, openness and honesty have proven effective in keeping our cooperation healthy and effective. When disagreements have occurred as a result of these differences, frank and honest discussion of the issues and solutions, accompanied by the strong recognition on our part that we are guests here, has generally brought resolution to the situation. Many of our partners in the work are being impacted by the reality that we do indeed have a genuine love to offer the disabled, the leprosy-affected, the uneducated, and the millions who are simply too poor to afford the basic necessities of life. Love impacts the hearts of all who will acknowledge its reality and strength, and even more so those who acknowledge its Source.

There is also a growing willingness on the part of the government to allow foreign NGOs to cooperate with the equipping and training of local Chinese Christians who are increasingly willing to demonstrate their love for the poor. We have, for several years, proposed this concept to any government officials who have displayed openness. With time we have witnessed a growing acceptance in some areas to having national Christians join in the governmental plans to assist the minorities and the poor. Foreign NGOs can (and often must) initially serve as promoters, liaisons, trainers and representatives for encouraging and promoting such things. (See box below for examples.)

China is strongly displaying her willingness to openly work with NGOs which brings foreign Christian professional expertise to aggressively pursue cooperation towards effecting a better living standard for those minority peoples who live in poverty. We must respond and work together with her to fulfill our Lord’s desire that the poor be loved in His Name.

Ways in which we have recently been involved:

  • A potato-growing project which helped poor Yi minority Christians triple their yield sent them with their tithes in seed potatoes to an even poorer group of Yi peoples in a neighboring area.
  • Believers from two minority groups were trained to do community development work and give medical care to the leprosy-affected minority peoples in their area. They are also staffing a mobile library project in poor villages.
  • Minority Christians have been helped to establish medical clinics then provide medical care and preventive health programs to the poor minority peoples in their area.
  • National Christians have been trained and mobilized to educate the public on the realities of and solutions for the coming devastation of AIDS among the minority and Han peoples of Yunnan (where AIDS in China has its highest incidence).
  • A Lisu Christian is mobilizing others to initiate assistance in foster care and leprosy projects among other minority groups.
  • A minority church in a remote site has requested training and financial assistance to help a leprosy-affected village and a group of non-Christian deaf.
  • A minority church in a remote site has mobilized the gathering and distribution of clothing to poor Tibetan, Yi and Lisu peoples in the mountains of their area
  • Deaf and disabled Christians from several minority groups (as well as the Han) are giving vocational training and guidance in life issues to the deaf and disabled.
  • An older disabled Christian woman, moved by the sight of all this, gave her family’s life savings (nearly $15,000) to further the work among the minority peoples who are affected by poverty.

Image credit: Minority peoples of Yunnan by Leonard Witzel via Flickr.  

Rob Cheeley

Rob Cheeley works with Project Grace in Yunnan Province. View Full Bio