From activist to ombudsman
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From activist to ombudsman
Author:   Article source: Shenzhen daily  Hits:1500  Add time:2009-5-28  

ON Jan. 9, 2004, Ao Jiannan sent a 20-page telegram to Shenzhen’s mayor at the time, Li Hongzhong, complaining about the dirty environment and bad traffic in Moon Bay in Nanshan, the district he lived in.

The telegram led to a broad campaign to clean up the entire city. Nearly all government departments were mobilized in the campaign, which was dubbed Action Combing. The city received a long-overdue facelift. Thousands of illegally constructed buildings  many built by people with power  were demolished. Parks were established in open spaces, and billboards were cleaned.

A telegram sounds old-fashioned in the age of mobile phones, e-mail and overnight mail. Li once asked Ao: “We live in the same city. Why bother to send a telegram?”

“Because your wall is too high,” Ao joked.

Recalling the incident five years later at his garage-turned-office in Taizi Shanzhuang, a housing estate in Moon Bay, Ao, 52, gave a more sober answer.

E-mails and telephone calls from an ordinary citizen might never end up being read and heard by the mayor  there are simply too many of them for the mayor to handle and are often intercepted by the mayor’s assistants. But a telegram must be signed by the recipient. That meant the mayor would definitely see it.

But what of overnight mail? “That’s inside an envelope,” explained Ao. “The recipient only needs to sign on the envelope and there was still a chance that the mayor wouldn’t open it.”


Ao knows how to get around  or deal with the bureaucracy. This hard-earned knowledge comes after years of experience of campaigning for residents in Moon Bay, a community of more than 50,000 residents at the foot of Mt. Nanshan. Once an industrial base of Shenzhen, Moon Bay has more than its share of power plants, factory chimneys, pollution, and complaints. Retired and restless, Ao acts as a middleman between the residents and the government, filing complaints for residents while pushing relevant government bodies to solve the problems.

Ao has an official title: liaison officer to Nanshan lawmakers. Before Ao, no such position existed. The job has no salary, but he does get 500 yuan (US$73) each month for his other community job as vice director of the neighborhood committee. Residents, however, regard him more as a liaison officer than a neighborhood director, a nominal job that has no real influence. The subsidy barely covers his fuel and telephone bills. Indeed, Ao said he spends more than 10,000 yuan of his own money each year on the “job.” Fortunately money is not a big problem for him — he receives a handsome retirement pension. He retired from a managerial position at a large State-owned company after surgery to remove part of his stomach in 1999.

Short, lean, with curly hair and deep wrinkles around the eyes and forehead, Ao is a son of central China’s Hunan Province, where he grew up. Despite his not-so-good health, he is nimble.

Ao works in the lawmakers’ liaison office, a 10-square-meter space equipped with a desk, couch, telephone and desktop computer. He has 12 “employees,” none of whom are paid. He and four others take a turn each day of the week to man the office.

Ao said he serves as a link between the government and the grassroots community. His job is to help the government “improve things that can be improved,” he said.

Ao became a well-known activist in 2000 when he led the charge in a lawsuit against the municipal housing and land resources bureau. He and other homeowners at Taizi Shanzhuang found that the bureau had put the wrong registration date on their property. He asked for a change, which the bureau readily agreed, but one year passed and nothing happened. Ao took the bureau to court, demanding the bureau correct the mistake and symbolically compensate him 1 yuan. The court ruled that the bureau should correct the date but refused Ao’s demand for compensation. Ao appealed. One year later, he won the case.

The case was widely reported by the media and greatly embarrassed the housing bureau. According to Ao, years later, a bureau official remarked to him during an informal occasion: “You are powerful.” Ao replied: “I’m not powerful. Your people are.”

Ao said he wouldn’t sue the bureau if he had it to do over again. “Resorting to court is embarrassing to both parties,” he said. “With my new position and skills (of dealing with the government), I could have easily solved the issue through negotiation.”


Negotiation is what Ao has been doing since 2002, when he pacified residents protesting against the construction of a garbage-burning power plant. Residents were unhappy because they believed the power plant would worsen pollution in the area, but the government believed the power plant was a good way to get rid of garbage. Taking Ao’s suggestion, the government organized resident representatives to visit established garbage-burning power plants. In the end, with the help of Ao, the government convinced residents that the power plant would be safe and clean. It was built on the condition that it would be subject to regular inspections from residents.

Ao’s work certainly has won the trust of the government. The then head of Nanshan District, Zhang Lianhui, suggested that Ao become a liaison officer in 2002. Ao accepted the suggestion, thus making the leap from activist to ombudsman.

For three years he used his car as a mobile office, driving around Moon Bay, listening to residents’ complaints and relaying them to relevant government departments and officials. In 2005, he finally got an office. The government pays rent and utility bills for the office, but other expenses are covered by Ao. That same year he was elected vice director of the neighborhood committee and began to receive a 500-yuan monthly stipend, which is about enough to buy box lunches for his staff.

The matters Ao handles range from the trivial to big infrastructure projects. Residents might complain to him about senior citizens singing at 6 a.m. in a park, traffic jams caused by a narrow road or even cheating housing developers. His mobile phone  a Little Smart, the cheapest available, which will soon be forced out of market  is a 24-hour hotline.

In the search for solutions, Ao knows where to go, who to talk to and when to make a move. “I understand what they want, what they are afraid of. I know what’s on the mind of a newly appointed official or an official approaching retirement age.”

Ao knows the importance of keeping good relationship with officials. On festivals, he brings groups of residents to extend festive greetings to government officials. After the government solves a community problem, Ao suggests the benefiting party send an ornate plate or flag bearing praise to relevant government bodies. When possible, he mobilizes reporters to cover the achievement. When necessary, he’ll buy a dinner.

Professor Huang Weiping, a contemporary Chinese politics researcher at Shenzhen University, said the liaison office was the result of struggles between the grassroots public and the government.

As Ao’s influence expands, other government bodies are trying to follow suit. Now the city has 94 lawmakers’ liaison officers. Ao said he would visit other liaison officers and share his experiences with them. “The most important thing is, you must stay detached from special interest groups,” he said.

The big long-term test, however, will be maintaining the independence of liaison officers while keeping good relationships with both the government and the public.

“Up to now the liaison office has been the achievement of a rational elite,” Huang said. “If Ao leaves, it might stop functioning.”

Ao said he has no intention to leave for the time being. “I still have several major projects in mind,” he said.

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