Deng Fei has launched several campaigns on China’s social media platform Weibo aiming to help disadvantaged children and promote nature conservation, including the Free Lunch for Children, the Anti-Child-Traﬃ cking Campaign, the Anti-River Pollution Program, the Free Healthcare for China’s Rural Children and the Children Protection Scheme. Among these, the most inﬂ uential is the Free Lunch for Children program. By the end of 2017, the program has raised 368.59 million RMB, oﬀ ering free lunches to 251,359 children in 931 country schools.
Deng Fei, the man behind these successful campaigns, started his career as an investigative journalist. Realising the people’s power in the new age of Weibo ― the social media where information becomes readily communicated by all and accessible to all, he grabbed the opportunity to make a diﬀ erence in the Chinese society. In 2011, he gave up his 10-year career as an investigative reporter and continued his life as a philanthropist. Now he has over 5 million followers on Weibo, helping him to make his philanthropic programs known to more.
For his pioneering role in journalism, social media, and charity, he was awarded Davos Global Young Leaders in 2014. He graduated from the EMBA degree from China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in 2015.
A Watch Dog: Anti-Child-Trafficking Campaign
In the ﬁ eld of journalism, investigative journalists are described as watch dog because the media scrutinizes and monitors social issues. In 1998, Deng Fei started as an intern in a news agency as a second-year university student. This was the kick-oﬀ of his investigative journalist career. From then on, he has written over 100 reports to reveal the truth. Most of his subjects were about the operations of government agencies and the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups whose voices are not heard in the public.
In 2003, he joined Phoenix Weekly, a Hong Kong magazine which provided him with an even larger platform. Many inﬂ uential reports were produced in those years like Killing Yangzong Lake, Lung Disease in Zhouzhuang, and Children Traﬃ cking Chain in South China. During this time, he also made a big
diﬀ erence by organising a group of more than 500 reporters and editors to cover the stories in the countryside of China. This group contributed a lot to his great success later as a philanthropist.
But in the relatively small journalism circle, the man never truly made his name across the country until the Anti-Child-Traﬃ cking Campaign he initiated on Weibo. In his words, he found himself “confronted by a new era” ―the age of Weibo in 2009. In 2010, he posted a photo of a missing boy who was kidnapped and traﬃ cked in 2008 with the caption “Will Weibo make a miracle? Please help the father to ﬁ nd his missing boy.” It was retweeted 5665 times. Four months later, the boy was found by a Weibo user in a village in Jiangsu Province.
Witnessing the power of Weibo, Deng Fei believed it would be the most useful tool to combat children traﬃ cking, as each user could get access to the photos and information of missing children. Under his initiative, people across China made joint eﬀ ort with the police to form a huge network to ﬁ ght against children traﬃ cking. It directly led to policy changes against human traﬃ cking in the Central Government’s Ministry of Public Security.
A Builder of Society: the Free Lunch for Children Program
In 2011, he realized while as a journalist he could make a diﬀ erence by inﬂ uencing readers through his reports, he could take action, with the help of Weibo, to address the problems.
“China is not short of people who write articles,” he said in an interview with New Express, “but people who take action.” So he decided to shift his focus from constructive scrutiny to constructive transformation, and became more involved in philanthropic programs.
The turning point was the Free Lunch for Children program.
In 2011, he met a rural teacher, who told him that there was no canteen and that many of her pupils went hungry during their days in school. The teacher felt guilty when she took out her lunchbox every day. This caught Deng Fei’s attention. Half a month later, he visited the village schools in Yunnan and Guizhou of the central and the west of China suﬀ ered from serious malnutrition. Of all students surveyed, 12% showed signs of developmental retardation and 72% would feel hungry during classes. The male and female boarding students were respectively 10 kg and 7 kg lighter, and 11 cm and 9 cm shorter below the national average for rural students.
To make things worse, as rural people ﬂ ock into cities in sought of better jobs over the last three decades, the rural population, once boasting one billion, shrank gradually. As a result, rural schools have been reorganized and smaller ones were merged or closed. It is no longer unusual for students of the more far-ﬂ ung areas to walk two or three hours to and from school. In those areas most kids are not able to come home for lunch.
Deng Fei, together with China Social Welfare Foundation, 500 journalists and dozens of mainstream domestic media outlets, launched a public fund-raising campaign to provide free lunches to the children in those areas. Prompted by his action, several hundred more journalists wrote about the issue. The photos he posted of hungry children on Weibo were spread far and wide. His followers on social networking such as Weibo and Tencent continued to send donations to a bank account he had opened. Within six months he had raised 3.7 million RMB from individual donors who knew his reporting work and trusted him with their money.
The challenges approached as money kept pouring in. Rapid expansion led to the question of how to monitor funds and ensure that schools are spending the money on food for students. As some Chinese charities were confronted with increasing public mistrust, transparency was a huge task for Deng Fei and his team. Again, Weibo was applied as a tool of accountability and scrutiny. First of all, each participating school were required to publicly post its weekly expense reports on Weibo. Secondly, his team worked with local government, media, non-governmental organisations and parents to oversee the accounts and visit schools to ensure the children were being fed properly. Finally, the charity’s two million followers on Weibo could monitor schools’ online accounting and travelers were encouraged to be “mystery guests”. Anyone could report by phone or Weibo if the lunch wasn’t up to the standard or any irregularities came to light. Since this was initiated, there was zero incident in food safety or fund safety. The online and oﬄ ine tools were proved to be trustworthy. Thanks to the transparency, the program made signiﬁ cant impact throughout China. It was listed on the oﬃ cial website that by the end of 2017, the program had raised 368.59 million RMB, oﬀ ering free lunches to 251,359 children in 931 country schools. Indirectly, his eﬀ orts led to the Central Government’s action. In October 2011, the former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced it would allocate 2.5 billion RMB for a “nutrition improvement plan” to provide a basic lunch to 26 million rural school children.
The Extension of Free Lunch: Love from Australia
The Free Lunch for Children program has had a huge impact in China and the world, leading to the partnership with other foundations. Australian China Education Foundation (ACEF) is one of them. Established in 2014, the Australian not-for-proﬁ t organisation supports education-related causes through various means, including the provision of direct ﬁ nancial assistance to children in poverty-stricken areas of China in completing their education up to Year 12 through one-to-one sponsorships. In 2015, ACEF partnered with the Free Lunch for Children Foundation to start the “Free Lunch for Children, Love from Australia” program. After raising the designated fund, ACEF partnered with the Free Lunch for Children (China) in operationalizing the program, which includes selecting the school, constructing the kitchen, hiring the cook and so on. The ACEF Free Lunch operation began in May 2016 at Donggou Primary School in Tianshui County, Gansu Province. ACEF raised $51728.60 Australian dollars as the fund for the Free Lunch for Children Foundation. At press time , the program donated more than 250,000 RMB to oﬀ er lunch for 97 students and teachers at Donggou Primary School.
In October 2017, ACEF’s Vice President Wang Yongfu paid a surprise visit to Donggou Primary School, without informing the school. To his delight, he found out that the kitchen was neat and clean, and the food was nutritious with good ﬂ avour. The children were satisﬁ ed and happy.
In light of its ongoing success, ACEF and the Free Lunch for Children program have conﬁ rmed the extension of their partnership into the next two years. From now to 2020, the organisations will together continue to fund-raise for Donggou Primary School’s free lunches. In addition, Deng Fei is scheduled to visit Melbourne in April 2018, where he will give a public seminar on his experience as a philanthropist and the Free Lunch for Children program.
All donations are welcome as part of the joint eﬀ ort to provide lunches for the pupils at Donggou Primary School. For every $198 AUD donated, a child can enjoy free and nutritious meals at school for an entire year. For further information on making donations, please visit www.acefund.org.au or contact Australia China Business
Circle at (03) 9863 8328.
Alternatively donations can be made via bank transfer:
Account name: ACEF
BSB: 033 157
Account number: 417 825