An interview with Wan Xingzui
Conducted by Radu Simion
Wang Xingzui is deputy director of the Center for Management of Foreign-funded Projects, which is under the State Council Leading Group Office for Poverty Reduction and Development. He is responsible for the development and management of poverty reduction projects funded by bilateral and multilateral sources. Xingzui is currently working on three large-scale poverty reduction projects supported by The World Bank. Upon completion, they aim to lift 8 million people out of poverty and stabilize or even reverse upland environmental destruction. He is also working to create interventions that enable poor individual farmers to generate higher incomes while promoting sustainable development for the entire community. Xingzui received a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from Beijing’s Foreign Studies University, as well as training in European agricultural policies at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.
The Politic: Why did you choose to apply to serve as a Yale World Fellow?
I have been working with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation for twelve years and it’s where I have been the deputy executive director for twelve years. So I worked on managing the daily operations of the foundation, which means I did not necessarily have time to think about the strategic directions of the organization. Last year I resigned from the position of executive director and am now the vice-president of the foundation, which means I’m not involved in managing the daily operations of the organization. So on one hand it means I have time, and on the other hand that I need to really focus on [how] the organization is going to move towards.
So I looked around for ways I could rethink and redefine my career path. I have a lot of friends who have been a part of this program, who were Fellows, and they would tell me that this is really a life-changing experience. One World Fellow actually said, “It will be an experience that will be carved deeply in your life.” I think that is something I really wanted to take up. I looked into the website and I thought the program could provide me with what I need; for example, a network among the world fellows and a network with the world community. It can provide me with academic enrichment. So I’ve taken a lot of classes like “The Moral Foundations of Politics” and “Gateway to Global Affairs” and these have helped enrich me academically. We have 16 World Fellows and two Associate Fellows, and we have a large community here. The program provides us with very practical skills like communication skills, or strategic thinking, critical thinking, participating in interviews, coaching, use of social media, etc, etc. All of these are what I need.
The Politic: That is definitely a great reason to apply. Tell me about your background, and where you grew up, and your interests overall outside of the organization.
I was actually born and raised in rural China, but my hometown is in a province called Jejan Province to the south of Shanghai, which is almost the best part of the country. It’s called the land of the rice and fish, which means it’s actually a worse place. But in the 1950s and 1960s around the time I was born, it was absolutely poor throughout the country. Given that my family was in a rural area and there were many more children in my family, we were hardly able to feed ourselves. But of course, at the same time, we worked very hard and studied very hard, so when the reform started later — in the 1970s — we were assigned a certain amount of land on which we could farm by ourselves. And educational doors opened, which meant we could pass exams and attend university, whereas in the 1950s and 1960s there was no such opportunity. Before we did not have the chance to take any exams or be enrolled in a university. And now it’s an open competition. As long as you are doing well academically, you can pass your exams and go to a university. I did very well on my university entrance exam and I was enrolled at a very prestigious university in Beijing.
After I finished my university education, I was recruited by the government, so I started working for the government. I worked for eight years with the Chinese Ministry Of Culture and then five years with the Chinese Ministry Of Poverty Reduction, the state consul poverty reduction office. After that, I started thinking I should do something more interesting. I was also inspired by my mentor, who was the executive director for the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation. I was so inspired by him that I actually transferred myself to work for the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, which is a nongovernmental organization.
As far as my interests are concerned, at the moment I am very interested in traveling, either in China or throughout the world. As a Chinese saying goes, “For a person to be successful, you’ve got to read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 miles.” This way you are exposed to different experiences, different cultures, different people, and different schools of thought by reading their books or by traveling around the world or around the country. I really enjoy traveling very much, whether in China, the United States, or other countries, because it not only helps enrich my personal experience, but also broadens my vision and my view about the world around me.
The Politic: What exactly is the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation and how does it compare to organizations that have similar goals?
As I said, it is a nongovernmental organization devoted to poverty reduction and rural development. It was initially [just] in China, but now we are aiming to transform it into an international NGO. It is one of the earliest NGOs in China, founded in the late 1980s, when there were very few NGOs. [The foundation] is 24 years old and is the largest NGO in the poverty reduction field in China. In terms of our staff, we employ about 1,200 people who work throughout about 20 provinces in China. The head office is in Beijing. We also have some staff working in other countries. In terms of annual revenue, we again are one of the largest. The annual revenue is somewhere around 1.6 or 1.7 billion yuan; with the money we are able to fund over 100 projects and activities, which will benefit about 1.5 million poor people in poor regions in China, or in other countries like Sudan or Guinea.
What makes our foundation different from other organizations with similar goals is our professionalism and our pro-market approach. Many organizations similar to ours were founded by retired government officials, so they managed their NGOs in a way very similar to the way that you manage a government, behaving like a bureaucratic organization. So they are not actually mission- or vision-driven; they proceed with their operations in a way a government would. So it is administration-based. Our [NGO], after a very bold reform in the late 1990s, was transformed into a marketed-based nongovernmental organization. This means that we, the board and the executive team, are responsible for the development of human resources, rather than having our management appointed by the government. At the same time, we are bringing in principles of businesses and companies. So we actually managed the organization like an enterprise, and [its] efficiency and effectiveness was improved. Our annual fiscal revenue has grown about 20 to 30 times over the past ten years. Ours is a model foundation in China, and we are hailed by a lot of our peer organizations, and by the government. We are an example for other organizations to learn from.
The Politic: I guess you already answered why the organization was important to you, saying it helps you enrich yourself.
Well, if I could elaborate a little bit on that.
The Politic: Yes, yes, sure.
We have a very unique culture of volunteerism in our organization, and we present awards to those who have been working for a long time for the organization. For example, every five years, a silver medal is given. Two years ago, it was my tenth anniversary with the organization, and I was presented with a silver medal to commemorate all of my contributions to the organization. During that occasion, I made a speech, in which I said that I made three important achievements, or harvests, during the past ten years. I said I harvested a family. I got married in those ten years, and now have a child. [I have] a very happy family. I also harvested my own personal growth. Although in the past I worked with the government, I did not consider myself as a kind of manager. But as executive director for ten years, I did learn and improve myself a lot in terms of management and of nonprofit organization. And most importantly I harvested a career rather than an occupation. A career is something you love to devote all of your life to, and I think that not everyone is lucky enough to find a career in their lifetime.
On top of these three harvests, I can say I’ve harvested a freedom of soul. I don’t know if you understand that or not, but it means this: Working in a bureaucratic organization in my first thirteen years of my career or occupation, I experienced a lot of constraints. Although I wanted to do a lot of things, I was constrained by different kinds of restrictions. But here in this organization, where we have a very clear mission and vision — so long as what [I am] doing is consistent with the mission or vision of the organization, given that I am in a senior position — I can get it done. And I don’t have to be constrained by unrealistic or unreasonable restrictions. I really like the organization because we are a group of people who have shared values and who devote ourselves to the cause we are undertaking.
The Politic: Has the organization faced any significant obstacles, something that may have impeded a project, or has experienced any financial or governmental troubles?
Not really. Since the institutional reform in the late 1990s, the development of the organization has been pretty smooth. But in terms of obstacles or challenges we do experience, we are experiencing [them] in our strategy. For example, we have two strategic directions. One is to help as many grassroots NGOs as possible. The other one is to transform ourselves into an international NGO. The donors who donate money to us have full confidence in our ability to implement the projects well. But when they hear that we outsource the money they donated to grassroots NGOs, whom they don’t know, it’s really a question. They say, “We trust you in your professionalism, but now you say that you are going to outsource money to them.” Many don’t agree, and of course we have to respect their will. Otherwise, it’s not fair to them.
We try hard to persuade as many of our donors as possible to do this kind of thing. Some do agree with us, but it’s pretty challenging. And on the internationalization front, it’s also pretty challenging. A lot of people may question [our decision to expand internationally] while there are still so many poor people in China. [They say] “Why then, do you go to a place to help people we don’t know? They are not relevant to us.” People simply don’t understand why. The businesses who are investing in these countries, they think they can do the job well; they don’t need your input or your assistance. Fundraising to support our international operations is also pretty challenging.
Apart from these two challenges, I think [it’s hard for] human resources to find people with the capacity to understand reality and who have the skills to do international projects. [These people] are actually rare. It takes time for us to train them. So these are some of the challenges we are facing at the moment.
The Politic: It’s kind of like you have to cultivate certain “thinkers.”
That’s right, that’s right. And China’s not like what you see here in the U.S., where the philanthropy sector has been developing for hundreds of years. In China, it’s only been around for about around for 30 to 40 years. So there is not a market of ready people that human resources can pull and recruit. Actually, there are [almost no] such people readily available there, so you have to recruit them from universities or from other sectors. And by training them on the job, they grow and develop.
The Politic: What do you believe qualified you as a World Fellow? Was there a certain project that had a profound impact?
Well you should probably ask the World Fellows program staff or the selection panel to know why they selected me. But from my perspective, I think I qualified for the fellowship on one hand for what I’ve achieved, and on the other hand because of my potential in the future. As I said, in the past 10 to 12 years, I have, along with the efforts of my colleagues, successfully transformed our organization from a government-operated NGO to a market-based and professional NGO, which is actually a remarkable achievement given the political and legal environment in China. Most [NGOs] founded in a similar time as ours are still operating as government-based organizations.
As a result of our transformational reform, the organization has been growing very fast in [both] quantity and quality. And it’s really appreciated by the NGO sector and by the poverty reduction sector in China. And it is admired by peer Chinese NGOs. I think this is something they actually see as being really important. Looking ahead towards the future, we are aiming to transform this professional, market-based NGO into an international NGO. If the transformation is successful, then I think it will be another important “history made” in the Chinese NGO sector. I think there’s a close link between the strategic direction of the organization and the World Fellows program, which focuses on exposing the fellows to issues of global importance. And this is actually what I’m interested in as well. So I think these are the two things that qualified me as a World Fellow.
The Politic: Well I guess you answered my next question, which asked, “In which direction is the organization headed,” which is to become an international NGO. So what is the ultimate goal of the organization? Is there one? Is there a certain number of people you want to alleviate from poverty by a certain year?
Now we don’t have this kind of goal [in place]. Of course, our ultimate goal is a world free of poverty. This is a goal that requires the hard work and devotion of several generations. We now position ourselves as pioneers of social innovations and philanthropy in China. This is already a very ambitious goal. I think this is really a lot for us to do. Not only for our organization, but for the entire NGO sector, along with the businesses and the government. What we aim for: rather than focusing on how many people we can help, what is more important is whether we can provide an innovative solution for the social problems we have, so that other NGOs, or the government and businesses, can learn from what we’ve been doing. [This way] the impact can be amplified, and poverty cannot only be tackled, but eliminated with the joint efforts of all these sectors.
The Politic: Do you have a single most important piece of advice you would share with Yale students?
You guys are outstanding, bright, smart. And I really admire you. My piece of advice is actually my belief as well. And that is to do well and to do good, unlike people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. In this very materialistic age, people want to make a lot of money and to become rich. But if you set that as a goal, you may not be rich, you may not be successful. But if you focus on something you’ve seriously chosen to do, you can do it well. As a Chinese saying goes, “There are always number ones in all of the 360 trades or guilds. So long as you focus on your particular trade, and you find out the issues and provide solutions to those issues. You will get something meaningful done, for yourself and for the society.” And then from this you can definitely make money.
The Politic: So you are advocating following what you believe in, and that the money will follow? Don’t just go into something?
Yes, don’t directly pursue something for money, because you may then take illegal forms or means to get money. Now, say you’re focused on what you’re doing and you do it well, do it successfully, and it contributes to improve the lives of people, contributes to improve society. It definitely generates money for you. Don’t do bad things, but at the same time, when you have money, contribute to philanthropy. Help the other people who are in need of help. So, my piece of advice is to do well and to do good.
The Politic: I think it’s a great piece of advice because a lot of people do get sidetracked in their goals and look at the wrong things at times. Thank you.