A cat that catches mice

China’s model of dealing with overarching societal problems deserves some attention.

In the last few months, articles in The New York Times rang the warning bell that China’s flexing of its steroid-induced muscles might edge out the United States. It’s the economy, stupid. Just look at the growing number of cars crawling on Beijing’s roads.

The U.S. media’s portrayal of China’s rapid development is pitifully narrow. Development means more than gross domestic product growth. Sure, economy is important, but what about civil society? In comparison with the United States and other developed nations, China’s civil society is still an infant.

Recently, I visited the Migrant Women’s Club, one of a handful of nongovernmental organizations in China. Xie Lihua, former member of the Women’s Federation, founded the group after the 1995 U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing. Inspired by her visit to a nongovernmental organization in Bangla-desh, she started to publish the first magazine for rural women in China, which at its peak had a circulation of 230,000. Soon, the magazine expanded into a full-fledged organization with a home for migrant women and a practical-skills training school.

At the club, migrant women (those who migrate from rural China to the urban area in search of employment) find a spiritual resting place. “Some people mistakenly think of the club as having plucked out the creme de la creme of the migrant women. They are wrong. Having worked here for 11 years, I have witnessed how these women have gained self-empowerment. They show society that they can do something as long as they have two hands,” Lihua said.

The club uses a grassroots approach, employing migrant women to help their counterparts. One employee came to the center after she fell off the fifth floor of a building while cleaning windows. She received no compensation from her employer. She turned to the club for help. Months later, she has not only recovered but is helping to counsel others.

The club is reflective of many Chinese organizations, which, unlike those in the United States, share a very intimate relationship with the government. Although this affiliation restricts both the content and tactics of their work, it also means increased efficiency. As long as the government approves of a project at hand, all forces – the media, legislative system and law enforcement – are mobilized to get the message across. A lawyer at a nongovernmental organization in Beijing borrowed former leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase to explain this phenomenon: “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.”

This cat – a healthy, vibrant civil society – is crucial to China’s sustained development. What we miss by looking only at quantitative economic indexes are the rife social problems – income disparity, infanticide, floating population, extreme poverty in rural areas and many more. Will China be able to cure these ills through developing a civil society with its own characteristics? That is the question the U.S. media should pounce on.

Diana Fu is a University student studying in China. She welcomes comments at [email protected]