Open a newspaper or news magazine any day of the week, and China will likely feature in any number of stories. Staggering economic expansion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, record poverty reduction, poisonous exports, human-rights violations, and the great-power political maneuvering between Beijing and Washington all receive daily coverage in some form or another. China’s transformation into an international power, both economically and politically, has been nothing short of remarkable in its speed and breadth. The Middle Kingdom is sometimes presented as a land of unmatched power, wealth, and business acumen, with unlimited potential for global domination.
The truth, of course, is much more complicated, and China is in no way as powerful or accomplished as many believe. Although the US is economically reliant on China’s purchases of Treasury bills to fund US debt—and it’s true that neither country could survive without the other—in many ways China remains a dangerously unfinished product. This danger manifests itself most visibly through China’s inability to control the pollution caused by its runaway industrial development, and its failure (or unwillingness) to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.
China also exhibits flaws through its inability to provide for the health and education of half of its own people. “[There is a] gap left between the days of Communism when work units took care of even poor families’ basic expenses, and the new freewheeling Chinese cash economy, with its blatant divisions between rich urban dwellers and the poor still left in the countryside,” writes Brecken Chinn Swartz, a visiting professor of communication at the University of Maryland, in a 2008 article for the campus faculty magazine. Swartz found her day job because of her PhD in international mass communication, but her true passion lies with Handreach, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) she co-founded in 2002.
Handreach began as a provider of microgrants to resource-poor rural schools in China, and later expanded into a healthcare-oriented project focused on helping catastrophically disfigured young burn victims across the country. It began morphing into its current form after Swartz—a fluent speaker of Mandarin—had a chance encounter with 12-year-old burn victim, Zhou Lin, begging with her family on the streets of Beijing in 2004. A faulty propane tank had exploded and horribly disfigured Zhou Lin from the waist down leaving her unable to walk on her own. Expenses associated with the accident had impoverished the family to the point where the parents could no longer afford school fees for their children. And so they had traveled to Beijing in a futile attempt to seek justice against the corrupt propane company and redress for Zhou Lin’s burn injuries.
Meeting the family outside the iconic CCTV state television building, where many poor, sick, or homeless had gathered in the hopes that the media would publicize their plight, Swartz’s brief conversation with Zhou Lin had a profound effect—one that Swartz talks about today in spiritual terms. Vowing that afternoon to do whatever it took to help the girl reclaim a normal life, that first encounter led to a two-year journey culminating in Swartz’s adoption of Zhou Lin, the girl’s recovery in America, and the formulation of Handreach’s current identity.
The prototypical example of an NGO trying to mitigate one of the harmful effects of China’s transition to cowboy capitalism, Handreach operates across China but mainly in and around Sichuan Province, a remote and rural area in western China that was home to a devastating earthquake in 2008 that killed nearly 100,000 people. Working primarily with children burned so severely that a normal life is impossible and orthopedic surgery and prosthetics are a necessity, Handreach’s zone of operations includes an abundance of illegal fireworks manufacturing facilities where regulations are lax or nonexistent and child labor is common. A lit cigarette carelessly dropped too close to unsecured explosive chemicals can leave many horribly scarred or disfigured. Most are too poor to afford the kind of medical care that could at the very least provide them with a functional life.
When Swartz first spent time in China, she wasn’t expecting to start an NGO. But as a teacher in Beijing from 1997 to 1998 she found herself building powerful bonds with many of her students. They invited her to their hometowns, giving her the opportunity to see a different side of the emerging economic juggernaut. “[My students] were on a mission to educate me about China beyond the stereotypes,” says Swartz. “I saw some of the extreme conditions and I started to make my own small donations in my own way.” When she returned to the US and entered graduate school at Maryland, she found herself in frequent conversations with colleagues about the conditions she had seen. “We had been inspired by the Zhang Yimou film Not One Less [about a resourceful young teacher in rural China]—and how a little money can go so far in transforming lives. So we decided that we would create a small organization, within the scope of our ability, to offer microgrants mostly to Chinese graduate students here in the US, to encourage them to remember their hometowns and to do educational development work there.”