Churches work to fill void in social services

Published October 1, 2005

Recovering drug addicts at a rehabilitation centre run by the Amity Foundation, a church-run NGO.


Some had their hands outstretched as though imploring, others closed their eyes as they sang a hymn whose refrain, translated from Mandarin, said, “I will praise you all my life.”

They could have been members of any choir, this group of men huddled around a guitarist who sang a heartfelt song of deliverance in a tiny square on a hilltop in this rural town.

But they’re not. The men, their ages ranging from 20s to 50s, are recovering drug addicts in a rehabilitation centre of the Amity Foundation, run by China’s Protestant churches. The centre, one of four in the province of Yunnan, southwest China, doubles as an HIV/AIDS prevention program – a much-needed response to the frightening prospect that by the year 2010, at least 10 million Chinese would have been infected by the disease unless a drastic intervention happens. In 2003, the Chinese government estimated its HIV-positive population, which has been increasing at an annual rate of 30 per cent, at 1.04 million. A majority of reported HIV infections were among intravenous drug users in Yunnan, where crack and heroin – smuggled from neighbouring Myanmar – are plentiful and cheap. For only two yuan ($0.29) you can smoke or inhale heroin, according to one patient at the centre.

“I was under the bondage of drugs for five years,” said a man who looked 10 years older than his stated age of 37, in a testimony before members of an ecumenical delegation that visited China last April. “I was a merchant before but because of drugs I lost everything, including my family. But now I’m willing to be changed by God and I’m willing to give my life and help others.”

The program (either free or subsidized, depending on the patient’s capacity to pay) has three components: drug rehabilitation, holistic life training and HIV-AIDS care and prevention. Patients undergo a one-week detoxification during which they are not allowed to leave their room, smoke, or use the telephone.

“We persuade them to tell the truth,” said Tippawan Zheng, a consultant from Thailand who works at the centre. “Some stay for a year and we build them up spiritually and given them vocational training.”

Most get hooked on drugs because of family problems, said Ms. Zheng. Almost all have been pushed into crime to support their drug habit.

Amity Foundation, created in 1985, was among the first groups in China to raise awareness of HIV-AIDS, whose existence in China was being denied by authorities until the 1990s. It took four years for government to agree to the foundation’s HIV-AIDS education program in Yunnan and Hunan in 1996.

“We were met with resistance from the local governments,” said Zhang Liwei, Amity’s associate general secretary for research and development. Efforts to persuade government to invest in HIV-AIDS projects paid off when Premier Wen Jiabao made an unexpected visit to several AIDS patients in Beijing on Dec. 1, 2003 – International AIDS Day. It was, according to Mr. Zhang, “a breakthrough in overcoming the taboo and stigmatization” related to HIV-AIDS. The government also announced an action program to combat the disease.

HIV-AIDS education and prevention is but one of Amity’s advocacies, which run the whole gamut of social justice issues, including poverty alleviation.

China’s shift from communism to the market economy and from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one has made a few affluent in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but has given rise to unprecedented poverty, especially in the rural areas. More than 400 million Chinese, mostly in the west, live on $2.00 a day, said Amity.

Those in the rural areas account for two-thirds of the 1.3 billion population, yet the central government only spends about one-seventh to one-tenth of its tax revenue there, said Mr. Zhang in a paper delivered during a round table meeting with foundation partners in Geneva in 2003. Access to health care and education are limited, he said, citing that expenditure for medical service, which account for five to seven per cent of GDP in developed countries, is less than two per cent in China.

While the rich in Beijing can afford to throw a small dinner party at a cost of 15,000 yuan ($2,196), unemployed workers living in working class districts survive on 500 yuan ($73) a month in social welfare, he said, illustrating the growing chasm in today’s China.

Such an imbalance has “undermined people’s confidence and cast a serious doubt over social justice,” said Mr. Zhang in his paper. “This has, in some places, led to unrest in certain rural areas…This has posed a threat to social stability and become a source of potential turmoil in society.” Indeed, Maclean’s magazine (Aug. 29) quoted Chinese authorities as having said that 74,000 protests involving impoverished farmers and the urban poor were reported in 2004; already, some foreign embassy analysts are saying that China is ripe for another revolution.

Amity has, in many cases, filled in the huge void of social services. It runs a summer internship program where volunteer teachers from Canada and other countries train middle school teachers. It has initiated back-to-school programs, especially among girls, who often miss out on education since priority is given to boys in patriarchal China.

Amity also provides homes for abandoned babies as well as daycare centres for children and teens with disabilities. “Kids with polio and other disabilities are often left behind at home without schooling,” said Mr. Zhang. “We train them in vocational skills.” The foundation also has “Amity grandmas,” Chinese seniors who provide supportive care to orphans, whom they visit five times a week.

Blindness prevention (eight million Chinese are blind) is another priority area; the foundation subsidizes eye operations.

Amity has trained more than 16,000 rural doctors and 7,000 hospital doctors. Financial problems inevitably surface among rural doctors, however. “It’s not always possible to sustain (the practice) because of poverty in local villages,” according to an Amity video. “People can’t pay for the medicines.” Some rural doctors do migrant work in the cities to buy the medicines that they bring back to the villages.

Providing social services “is our contribution to social development,” and to the propagation of the gospel, said Mr. Zhang, who said that the name Amity was taken from the Bible and means “the virtue of love.”

“It’s praising God through work,” he said, citing that Chinese churches today are more willing to do social work than in the past when “doubts were raised that it was not part of Christianity.”

The job is not always easy – local officials, suspicious of Amity’s intentions, have sometimes raised stumbling blocks.

But Amity is undaunted. “We need to invest in people,” said Mr. Zhang. “When people achieve social responsibility, they can become architects of their own future.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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