Law in Contemporary Society

An Albino, a Deaf Guy, and a White Girl Walk Into a Chinese Job Fair…

-- By AllisonMcCarty? - 20 Jun 2012

The other day I followed two of my colleagues, at a careful distance, into the second ever “Beijing Special Job Fair for the Disabled.” They carried a signboard and a camera. I was there to observe, and – they cautioned – should the police appear and question me, deny any acquaintance with them. They were there to talk about discrimination against people with disabilities in the recruitment and examination process for the Chinese civil service. Their poster featured a cartoon drawing of a man in a tie, sporting Stevie Wonder-style wraparound sunglasses and clutching a certificate. The caption, in Chinese, read, “Disabled and a Civil Servant: I Can.”

In years before, when I lived in China, I wondered about the seemingly low profile of the disabled. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there are bound to be some with visible disabilities, but rarely did I see any. I asked Chinese friends about it. Was it some sort of cultural sense of shame that kept disabled people indoors, in the care of family? Could it be that there were proportionately fewer disabled people in China, given the one child policy, the prevalence of technology to test for irregularities in utero, and the ease of obtaining abortions? People I talked to agreed that these could be factors, but claimed not to know much about the situation.

When I started interning this summer, at a Chinese NGO that does anti-discrimination and advocacy on behalf of the disabled, the answer they gave me was so glaringly obvious, I felt like a moron. “It’s because they can’t get around, Allison,” my coworker patiently explained. “Buildings aren’t accessible. Streets are torn up half the time. How is a person in a wheelchair supposed to go anywhere?” Indeed.

I was excited, at the job fair, to have the chance to interact with people that I’m ordinarily segregated from by infrastructure, or the lack thereof. I was curious how they would respond to my colleagues, who intended to take pictures of different people holding up the Chinese Stevie Wonder sign and, with their permission, upload the photos to a microblog. There they would serve as virtual signatures on a letter asking the government to comply with its own regulations, which require that employers maintain a staff such that disabled employees constitute no less than 1.5% of total employees. The letter also called for proper accommodations for disabled people who wish to take the civil service exam.

A Protest by Any Other Name (or, Words Are What They Do)

The term my organization uses for activities like the one at the job fair is “performance art.” It is, on one hand, rather a grandiose title to give to something like the parading around of a poorly drawn, Chinese Stevie Wonder-looking cartoon, for photographic purposes. It is, on the other, practical and necessary. The kneejerk government reaction to terms like “protest,” “campaign,” and “community organizing” calls for some creative branding, to reduce the likelihood that such efforts are quashed before they can even start. “Performance art” is also a good deal less frightening to members of the public than a word like “protest,” which carries echoes of Tiananmen and the countless bloody uprisings before it, as well as a general sense of badness, whether or not the audience is aware of the events of 1989.

Don’t Stand Too Close to Me (or, I am a Lawyer; I am Never Far from Evil)

I have never seen, elsewhere, the kind of fear that I’ve seen in China. This is not to say that I have been everywhere and seen everything. Nor is it to say that I think Chinese people are fraidy cats. It is to say that the degree to which fear is used to control people here and the monumental scale on which this occurs is unparalleled by anything else in my experience or observation.

My colleagues’ insistence that I pretend not to know them at the job fair was for the organization’s protection, not my own. I know as well as they that as an American, especially a white American, the chances of something terrible happening to me at the hands of Chinese law enforcement are minute. The beatings, forced disappearances, and lengthy prison terms that many of the lawyers I have gotten to know have suffered on account of their alleged attempts to subvert the state – evidenced by the way they have stood up for the rights of the disabled, the rural poor, HIV carriers, religious practitioners, ethnic minorities, etc. – will not be visited on me. However, should the authorities learn that my organization is opening its doors to “anti-Chinese forces,” the media’s popular term for foreigners like me who want to contribute to positive change in China, the NGO will be subject to stricter scrutiny and more hassle.

Non-natives tend to draw a lot of attention in China, and the disabled job fair was no exception. I walked in, at an appropriate interval after my colleagues, and immediately all eyes were on me, beset as I was with the greatest affliction of all: foreignness. That changed, though, when my colleagues’ camera began to flash. The organizer of the job fair, a self-proclaimed advocate for the disabled, hustled over to where they stood, encircled by a small crowd of job fair attendees waiting to have their pictures taken with Chinese Stevie. She took one look at the sign and its reference to the civil service, and told them to get out. “We don’t want any trouble here,” she said.

My colleagues pointed out that the job fair and the microblogging “exhibit” served an identical, benign purpose – to increase employment opportunities for disabled people –and thus, there ought not to be any “trouble.” My colleagues themselves are disabled, and explained that they simply wanted to connect with others in their community around issues affecting them.

“Don’t play smart with me,” said the disability advocate, as she manhandled them out the door. “We all know what trouble looks like.”


I would like to continue writing and revising over the summer. Thanks.

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r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:46 - IanSullivan
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