Cheng Yuan’s life changed completely when his girlfriend, Liu An, was effectively fired from her new job after testing positive for the Hepatitis B Virus (HBV). After watching her struggle against employment discrimination and becoming involved himself with the HBV community in China, Cheng Yuan decided to leave his then-flourishing career in finance and focus full-time on advocacy to end HBV-related discrimination in China.
Of the 350 million people worldwide living with HBV, nearly one-third reside in China. Discrimination against people living with Hepatitis remains pervasive in the country. Children living with Hepatitis B are commonly rejected from kindergarten classes; high school graduates with HBV are rejected from university admissions; and, as in Liu An’s case, qualified workers can be barred from employment if they test positive for the disease in pre-employment physicals.
At the onset of his advocacy work, Cheng Yuan got together with a group of like-minded volunteers in Nanjing, some of whom were living with Hepatitis, to protest in city squares and public places. They printed educational brochures at their own expense and handed them out to teach the public about the rights of people living with Hepatitis. They got creative, staging public performance art shows that highlighted the damaging effects of discrimination for the community. In 2008, Cheng Yuan established the Ganzhilu Volunteer Center in Nanjing. The center started out as a small support group for people living with Hepatitis B, and has since evolved into an advocacy NGO working on a range of discrimination issues. After building a reputation for himself as an activist in Nanjing, Cheng Yuan was recruited by the renowned advocacy organization Yirenping to help launch Tianxiagong, a now-thriving and authoritative policy advocacy NGO in Nanjing.
Like many activists, Cheng Yuan’s strengths were in his compassion, drive, and experience, but he lacked the technical skills to build and sustain targeted, rights-based advocacy campaigns and affect change. So, in December 2011, Cheng Yuan participated in Asia Catalyst’s one year NGO capacity building program to better hone his skills as an activist, organizer, and manager.
For one year, he attended workshops by Asia Catalyst with nine other leaders from Chinese civil society, and honed his skills in strategic planning, budgeting, management practices, and advocacy strategy. After completing the one-year program, he reported that Asia Catalyst’s trainings “lifted his confidence as an advocacy leader, and gave him unexpected rewards” as he has continued his work.
His experience with the capacity-building program was so positive that he continued working with Asia Catalyst in a training of trainers program in 2014. In Asia Catalyst’s trainer program, Cheng Yuan learned to facilitate his own advocacy workshops. He became a certified expert on training techniques and human rights curriculum.
According to Cheng Yuan, being a trainer offers “a practical opportunity” for engaging in advocacy, “because you have to look at workshop conversations from the other side of the discussion, to consider the ability of individual participants, the level of their knowledge, and other complicated factors.”
One purpose of Ganzhilu Volunteer Center is to empower people to understand their rights and take action on behalf of their community; learning the skills of a trainer has helped him develop the tools to be successful in Ganzhilu’s mission. As a trainer, Cheng Yuan has also helped achieve Asia Catalyst’s vision of a stable, independent civil society in East and Southeast Asia: he has used the knowledge gained through Asia Catalyst programs to train more than twenty other organizations in rights-based advocacy.
The past few years have seen breakthroughs in anti-discrimination policies in China related to HBV, which Cheng Yuan attributes to constant efforts from community activists, including those that he has trained. Where there was once no legal basis on which to fight against employment discrimination against people living with Hepatitis, there is now concrete legislation protecting the employment rights of people living with Hepatitis in China. One of the most amazing things, according to Cheng Yuan, is how his organization’s advocacy activities ultimately changed not just China’s law, but also the attitudes of the Chinese HBV community itself. He says with a smile, “after being educated in their human rights…the community is now advocating for rights on its own behalf.”
Cheng Yuan does not plan to leave his place in rights-based advocacy any time soon. When asked how he keeps faith in advocacy when civil society faces so many obstacles in the region, Cheng Yuan replied, “Drinking tea with some agencies every month can actually be a way of advocacy. Changes are happening in small steps. And I think I am quite suitable for this work.”