As an award-winning reporter for the China Times, Vickie Chang (張平宜) has seen more than her share of the world’s inequity and horror, but a visit to a Chinese leper colony in 1999 changed the direction of her career. She quit her job as a journalist and in 2003 established the charity Wings of Hope (希望之翼) to engage with the situation she had witnessed. Her efforts have won her the acknowledgement of the Chinese government and this year she received international recognition after being named as Reader’s Digest Asian of the Year 2012.
MARGINS OF SOCIETY
When Chang first visited, most of the people living in leper colonies in China had been isolated on the margins of society, unable to access even the most rudimentary social services. Many were without any form of official identification, making it impossible for them to seek education or work outside their community. What made the situation even more appalling was the fact that not only is leprosy now treatable, but that many of the people living in these communities, children of people with leprosy, were not infected at all.
This situation was the result of Chinese government policy in the 1950s in which lepers were isolated in remote regions to contain outbreaks. The disease is still stigmatized by society at large, and in the area of Liangshan (涼山) in Sichuan Province where the majority of residents belong to the Yi (彝族) ethnic minority, the disease is traditionally equated with demonic possession.
“As a journalist of many years standing, I felt that I didn’t have to remain a third party merely reporting on the issue. I thought that if I took action, I would be able to make a difference. It would be taking my work as a reporter to the next level. I could help these children win support from public opinion that would put pressure on the government to formulate a policy to give these children an opportunity,” Chang said.
Faced with government inertia and social discrimination, Chang faced an uphill struggle; one that was made considerably more difficult by the fact that she was a Taiwanese trying to operate in China.
“Of course, as a Taiwanese in China seeking to win formal recognition for a community and obtain basic human rights from the Chinese authorities, there were many difficulties,” Chang said.
“I stupidly jumped into the fray and together with these children, we gradually found our way. … My main concern is organizing the daily needs of these children inside the leper community, and not with the political aspect of things,” Chang said.
Working with the authorities was nevertheless an inevitable part of Chang’s routine, but as an outsider, this was not always easy.
“There has been friction with the authorities, but through this we have come to understand each other better,” she said.
The biggest change has been after she was selected as one of China’s most “touching individuals” for 2011(2011感動中國). The award, given by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV (中央電視台) is one of the most prestigious given to individuals who can serve as a role model for society, and in its 10-year history, Chang has been the first Taiwanese to be honored in this way. The award conferred a degree of recognition by the central government for her efforts, and made it easier for her to obtain the cooperation of local officials.