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“Officer of the British Empire,” “Chair and co-founder of China Vision,” “disability rights activist,” “documentary producer,” ”former China Country Director of the BBC World Service Trust,” “co-founder and director of Xanadu Production,” “China specialist,” “perfect Chinese language master” and even “Indomitable man who betters the world despite his own visual impairment.”
These are the streamlined descriptions of Stephen Hallett, a 53-year-old British man who has spent more than half of the last three decades in China as a student, teacher, film-maker and an advocate for disability rights, and come across these various titles on his paths of life.
Two weeks ago, when a blue sky and balmy summer heat presented their rare appearance above the ancient alleys in Beijing, Toonari Post met Stephen Hallett at a small café located in one of the alleys. He was already there, drinking coffee and reading with his small magnifier. He gave a warm greeting and kindly offered a piece of chocolate cookie. He came back to Beijing only weeks ago, following his intensive annual trip to the small villages across China, where he looks after all the different projects that each of the local disabled people’s organization (DPOs) and ‘China Vision’ have been working on together. He said he was about to take part in another disability rights conference between civil society advocates in Europe and China the following week.
Stephen Hallett is currently one of the world’s foremost experts and advocates of disability rights in China. He established a UK-based charity China Vision in 1999 with a group of individuals with humanitarian concerns for disabled people in China. Since its establishment, China Vision has served its niche for the improvement of education and employment opportunities for disabled people in China.
In 1980, a 20-year-old Stephen Hallett first came to China to study Chinese as an exchange student from Leeds University. After graduation, he continued his studies at Renmin University in Beijing, to deepen his understanding of China and Chinese culture. By the mid-1980s he was already one of the first foreign pioneers of China after the end of Maoist era, and also one of the first foreigners who were legally permitted to marry a Chinese and live in a Chinese citizen’s house. He worked as a teacher in Beijing Agricultural University and an international school in Beijing.
In the late 1980s, he ran into an opportunity to make a documentary when he went to Lama Temple in Beijing with a group of school children. “I got really interested in documentary making, because my idea was to act as a cultural bridge between China and the West.” Stephen started producing a series of high-profile documentaries on China, including China Rocks, about China’s first major rock star Cui Jian, and Women of the Yellow Earth, about the lives of women in the Loess Plateau of northern Shaanxi, both of which were broadcast on British and American TV. In 1995, he co-founded Xanadu Productions in order to make independent documentaries on China.
However, by the late 90s he faced a crucial turning point in his life. His weak eyesight became even worse than before due to a serious cataract, and he was registered legally a blind. During that time, he met a Chinese blind person, Mr Xu Bailun, who ran a Chinese DPO called ‘Golden Key’, helping disabled children in Inner-Mongolia and Guangxi to attend mainstream schools. This encounter inspired him to do volunteer work for Golden Key in China and learn about disability in China, and finally encouraged him to found ‘China Vision’ in 1999. Around that time he also moved his career from documentary to radio, and in 2003 started making radio programs about disability for the BBC Chinese service. From 2005 to 2008 he served as China Country Director for the BBC World Service Trust.
Over the past decade, his charitable organization China Vision has carried out numerous hands-on projects with disabled people in China. Among all its achievements, its current project ‘Enabling the Disabled’ with local DPO Beijing One Plus One is notable, having facilitated nation-wide radio programs made exclusively for and by disabled people, aired on China National Radio, and also a hotline for disabled people. This has helped disabled people, especially those living in rural areas, to access reliable information and connect to society. (To see more details http://chinavision.org.uk/).
In acknowledgement of decades of contribution for increasing understanding of disability in China, Stephen Hallett was also conferred the order of ‘Officer of the British Empire’ (OBE) in 2011. However, when I asked him which title or job defines him best, he took a pause for thinking and answered with a smile, “Well, I like all of them, but I think best thing defines me is my name, Stephen Hallett. I just wish that I can be remembered as somebody who tried to make difference in people’s lives.”
For hours, we talked about his passion, achievements and some hardships of the last 30 years of his life as a China lover, a leader of NGOs, a husband and a father, and he also shared his insightful opinions on current affairs on China. Read the interviews here and here.
Photo Courtesy of Author