(Corrects type of beer in 10th paragraph in Aug. 14 story.)
Wei Qian perked up at work on a Monday in May when she stumbled across an ad for an online auction offering dinner in Beijing with her favorite political-science author.
She decided to dump her long-planned beach holiday in Thailand with her three best friends and use the money to make a bid instead. The 29-year-old bank employee was determined to finally meet her idol, Liu Yu, a Columbia University PhD graduate she calls the Goddess of Democracy.
That afternoon Wei logged into the site, called the Meat Shop, and waited until 26 minutes were left before placing her first bid. The price jumped rapidly as 17 people sparred for the dinner. With 58 seconds to go, Wei put up 11,300 yuan ($1,846) - - more than two months’ salary and her whole summer travel budget. Her heart raced until the clock ticked down and she won.
With that last click, Wei joined a novel online cause in China, known as the “meal delivery” program. Proceeds from the Meat Shop go to support human rights activists and the families of jailed political dissidents, a gesture that could be considered an affront to the ruling Communist Party.
Wei says she wasn’t deterred when she noticed the shop’s goals, especially given Liu Yu’s participation.
“It’s a very expensive dinner, even if it was with Warren Buffett,” the pony-tailed Wei says in an interview at a cafe in Ningbo, eastern China, referring to the billionaire investor’s annual charity lunch auction. “But for Liu Yu, it’s worth it.”
More than 8,000 people have shopped at the site since it opened on March 28 and it has attracted 1.3 million hits. Many customers are upwardly mobile urbanites like Wei who say they are fed up by injustice. Their reasons for taking part range from simple charity to wanting to build a freer society, according to interviews by Bloomberg News.
The site’s following means a growing number of Chinese may be willing to take small actions that together pose a challenge to China’s Communist one-party rulers, says Wu Qiang, a political scientist at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“This shows the public may be passionate to play a role in civil society and a transition to more democracy, even though they don’t explicitly say so,” says Wu, who studies social movements. Some participants even describe themselves as members of the “meal-delivery party,” indicating they see the Meat Shop as having a political dimension, Wu said.
In its first four months, the Meat Shop raised more than 1 million yuan from selling donated goods, including a Bulgari bag, micro-brewed beer and paintings, as well as auctioning several Warren Buffett-like meals. People can also participate by paying as little as 1 yuan to purchase a raffle ticket or an online article spelling out the Meat Shop’s goals.
The Meat Shop is hosted inside Taobao Marketplace, run by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China’s largest e-commerce company. A notice to buyers says, “This Taobao shop is different!” It explains that every penny will go to humanitarian aid, followed by names of dissidents or activists who have received assistance in earlier meal delivery fund-raising efforts.
Each 120,000 yuan raised is distributed. A randomly selected committee of nine Meat Shop customers chooses the recipient from a shortlist put forward by a citizens’ rights advocate. The money is enough to support a typical Beijing family for about one year. So far, three people have received aid, with enough left to help at least six more.
The effort is one way in which people are coming together in China today to try to make a difference in a society where they see people mistreated, says Guo Yuhua, a Tsinghua sociologist who presented the candidates for one of the rounds.
“They cannot stand watching things like this anymore,” she says. “It’s not politics but morality.”
That the Meat Shop is hosted on such a popular electronic commerce site makes people feel it’s safe to participate, according to Wu.
“It’s difficult to imagine another way that allows ordinary people to participate in such a risky cause,” he says.
The program has spawned heated public debates on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, on such sensitive subjects as how dissidents are treated and how best to bring about change in a country ruled by the Communist Party since 1949 -- through reform or revolution.
The Meat Shop was founded by Xu Zhirong, better known by his Chinese pen name that translates as Meaty Monk. A former doctor and Internet executive, he became an online personality dispensing advice about sex and relationships after writing a well-reviewed book on marriage.
Xu is no stranger to testing the limits of China’s political system. In 2011, he sold T-shirts online for an independent candidate running in district elections in Beijing. He says he also leveraged his online popularity to start the meal delivery program that year, appealing for money to help four activists.
His cyber activism led to the censorship of his own Weibo microblog, Xu says. Some posts were deleted after Xu advertised stickers with a picture of Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer under house arrest for campaigning against forced abortions performed to enforce the one-child policy. Chen fled to the U.S. Embassy and later moved to New York. The stickers, designed to be displayed in car windshields, carried the words “Free CGC.”
Pairs of Legs
Drivers were too afraid to plaster them on their vehicles, Xu says, so he came up with a gimmick to draw attention to the campaign: He invited women to attach them to their thighs and send him photos.
Many did, though not always with the stickers. Xu posted the best-looking pairs of legs on his Weibo site, inspiring other people to send him more. The photo collection helped boost his following to 140,000 people, in a country where 3,300 microbloggers have more than 1 million fans.
The Meat Shop is a more ambitious project, he says. It’s a play on his pen name, which refers to a monk in the classic 16th-century Chinese novel, “The Journey to the West.” Anyone who eats the monk’s flesh becomes immortal.
“I know a thing or two about the Internet,” says Xu, 47, as he flips through pictures of legs on his iPhone in the study of his home in Dalian, in China’s northeast. “When you do something, you have to make it fun, and make it controversial to attract sustained attention.”
He says he was inspired by the 2006 book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” It chronicles the rise of crowd-sourced phenomena such as Wikipedia and YouTube (GOOG), which thrive on contributions from the public. Just as a starfish can regenerate when it loses one of its arms, Xu says he hopes his model will survive through copycats even if the Meat Shop is closed down.
Three days before unveiling the site in March, Xu used the notoriety of his leg collection to create a teaser on Weibo. He posted a photo of a brown Bulgari handbag alongside a pair of women’s smooth-skinned legs stretched out on a sofa.
“Take all the money raised for meal delivery,” read an accompanying letter signed by “a stranger.” “I have only one request: If my legs can be ranked among the top 10 in your 600-plus photos, can you put this as the first auction?” The message ended with the icon of a shy face.
While Xu had embellished the note, the bag and the legs were real. Both belonged to Candy Wang, a 33-year-old saleswoman with a multinational company in Nanjing, an eastern city of 8 million people. The bag was an unwanted gift from an ex-boyfriend.
Wang first got to know Meaty Monk from his amusing relationship advice, she says in a phone interview. Then she noticed his appeals to raise money for rights activists.
Like many among China’s middle class, she says she worries about air and water pollution and is angry at the injustices she sees around her. So she jumped at the chance to send money to one of Xu’s earlier meal delivery appeals last year, she says.
Donating the bag, which sold for 7,000 yuan, was another way of expressing gratitude to those who sacrifice themselves in the public interest, Wang says.
“They did things that I am unlikely to do, because I don’t want to give up freedom,” she says. “The way dissidents are treated is unacceptable.”
In Changsha, a city of 7 million people in central China’s Hunan Province, two men joined the meal-delivery program in different ways. One paid 1 yuan; the other made a then-record bid for a dinner date with a celebrity blogger that created a surge of interest in the Meat Shop.
The eyes of 32-year-old technician Xiaofang lit up when he saw an ad on Weibo offering a date with Good Dynamite, the Internet alias of Beijing-based artist Chen Banruo. He was one of her 170,000 microblog followers, drawn to her postings of art, social commentary and photographs of herself and her cat. She was pictured in a low-cut pink T-shirt. The accompanying invitation read: “Dress code up to you, excessive drinks and bear hug allowed.”
Xiaofang, who asked to be identified only by his Internet handle because he works for a government agency and fears reprisals, had been looking for a way to participate in the Meat Shop.
Even though he has an easy life in a civil servant job arranged by his parents, he’s lonely because he can rarely discuss what’s happening in China, he says.
“Not only those outside the system are looking for ways to change society for the better,” Xiaofang says. “Many within it no longer want to be imprisoned by it either.”
To win the date, Xiaofang bid 10,501 yuan, more than a month’s salary.
“I have always wanted to get to know such a girl but never had the chance,” he says at a cafe where he plays with his Google Nexus tablet and Kindle Paperwhite (AMZN) e-reader.
He traveled six hours by train to Beijing, where he met with Chen and a male companion she brought along to an Italian restaurant called Annie’s. They talked over a dinner of eggplant and pasta about her life as if they were already friends, he says. He didn’t take her up on the bear hug.
“My life now has meaning,” says Xiaofang. Chen didn’t respond to interview requests.
Across a river that runs through Changsha, a 20-year-old college junior looking for meaning in his life paid 1 yuan to join the meal-delivery cause. Li Xinyu bought a ticket in a raffle hoping to win a Hermes (RMS) silk scarf valued at 2,799 yuan.
Li lives in a 650-yuan-a-month room that has little space around a bed covered by a bamboo mat. He says he uses his Gateway laptop computer and Huawei smartphone to buy goods and browse social networking sites.
“I’m a member of the Weibo generation,” he says. “It tears open a little window, and those who care can find things they need.”
He describes his electronic coming of age in high school when he learned how to climb over China’s “Great Firewall,” which blocks access to some foreign websites, to upload pictures onto the U.S. photo-sharing site Picasa.
These days, he says he no longer bothers to do that because the Chinese Internet has all the information and social networking he craves.
He didn’t win the scarf, but he was chosen to be among the nine people to allocate the first 120,000 yuan the Meat Shop raised.
Named the Bulgari (MC) Committee, after the site’s first auction, the group met in the evening of April 15, through an Internet chat room set up on QQ, Tencent Holdings Ltd. (700)’s instant messaging service. Each member was identified only by a number.
They were sent a video in which Guo Yushan, the director of a citizen’s rights group in Beijing, introduced three families in dire financial straits. They were: Tang Jitian, a civil rights lawyer; Fan Yanqiong, a rights campaigner; and Xu Wanping, who has spent most of the past 24 years in jail for subversion after he attempted to register political parties.
In a country where citizens rarely have the chance to vote, apart from in local elections for candidates approved by the Communist Party, Li says the process was transparent and fair.
Xu Wanping’s family was chosen, winning four votes after a nine-minute exchange.
A month later, Xu, the Meat Shop’s founder, delivered a paper bag containing 12 stacks of bills worth 10,000 yuan each to Xu Wanping’s wife Chen Xianying in Chongqing in western China. Xu posted a picture on his Weibo of her smiling and holding out a bamboo ash tray she gave to be auctioned in return.
“It was like sending me coal in snowy weather,” Chen says in a telephone interview, citing a Chinese proverb that refers to providing much-needed help. “My heart pounded fast. It was the most gracious gift in the world.”
Chen, 38, says she can now pay for surgery for her son who’s in middle school. The money will also allow her husband to get extra food, clothing and medicine in jail. Before, she sent him 500 yuan a month from the salary of 1,400 yuan she earns selling liquor at a Wal-Mart store.
“It’s not only my family; many unknown families are making sacrifices,” says Chen, who recently moved into a newly built apartment building after her home was demolished. She hopes her 52-year-old husband will be freed on bail next year.
The Bulgari Committee stayed together through late July to manage a special relief fund for victims of an April earthquake in Sichuan, western China. The temblor killed at least 196 people and injured more than 10,000. Almost 1 million yuan was raised from more than 7,000 Meat Shop customers for that cause, which was separate from the meal delivery program.
Li says he was more fulfilled being part of that effort, and he even visited the disaster zone to monitor the use of the money.
“I tried my best to make a difference, even though I could only play a small part,” Li says.
The Meat Shop was twice temporarily shut down for falling afoul of Chinese regulations, according to Xu, the founder. He wouldn’t say whether he had personally come under official pressure. Alibaba doesn’t comment on individual storefronts on Taobao, a spokeswoman said by e-mail.
Xu’s online reputation as a firebrand led to his removal as the program’s organizer on June 20 by one of the committees selected to oversee the shop. The decision came after he used obscene language in an online spat with other activists. The dispute erupted after Zhao Hui, a dissident and former journalist, posted that the program was a “short-lived game.”
“A frivolous approach won’t stop the authorities from getting you,” Zhao says in an interview. “I support the cause but this isn’t the most effective way to bring about change.”
Xu says he doesn’t mind being ousted as he had always intended to hand over management of the site to its supporters. He says he’s surprised the venture has survived this long.
The arguments brought more attention to the site. So too did involvement by celebrities. A Phoenix TV war correspondent donated a Ferragamo scarf and an antique clock. Movie star Chen Kun retweeted the May auction of the Liu Yu dinner to his 40 million followers 90 minutes before the bidding started.
After Wei sealed her victory, she felt the wrath of her friends, who told her she was crazy to ditch their holiday for the dinner. They had named the trip “the sunshine sisters’ Thai buzz,” and planned to tag the phrase on every vacation photo they posted online.
Wei also faced disbelief at home when she tried to explain the cause. Her mother told her that political prisoners no longer existed in China, says Wei, an economics graduate who still looks like a student in cropped pants, T-shirt and gold-rimmed spectacles.
“They choose to limit their knowledge to a safe zone,” Wei says of her parents. “My generation is different.”
Last fall, Wei joined a demonstration in Ningbo’s central square against a planned chemical factory. She says she worried for her job afterward because her employer threatened to fire anyone caught on surveillance cameras.
The amount Wei paid to win the meeting with the scholar beat the Meat Shop’s previous record for the Good Dynamite dinner.
The website’s creator Xu took notice, posting on his Weibo that China has hope.
A second auction for dinner with Liu in June set a new record of 18,100 yuan. Liu declined to comment.
On June 1, Wei met her idol in a restaurant near Tsinghua University, where Liu works as an associate professor.
Wei had a burning question for her: Why does Liu believe China will move toward democracy?
Liu, 37, told her the public’s conscience is being awakened, citing the Ningbo protest as an example, Wei says. Wei says she explained she didn’t agree because a spiritual vacuum has made people selfish.
Wei has since quit her bank job to prepare for her first trip abroad to Canada as a doctoral student in economics and sociology. She says she thinks that while China will change, it won’t embrace democracy.
“I want to find out the reason why,” she says.