This article also appeared in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
“There is such a bakery in Nanjing: about one third of its employees are people with mental disabilities; it’s called ‘Ai De Bakery’ [Amity Bakery in English]. They are han han”—the character for “han” means simple and naïve, but also straightforward and trustworthy—“with about a five or six years old’s level of intelligence, but they are meticulous about everything…they have three stores in Nanjing already. There is bread and love here!”
This comment, posted on micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo by Tao Ran (@陶然), Vice President of Alibaba Group, a Chinese Internet company, has attracted more than 20,000 reposts and 1,500 comments over just four days. Most of the comments have evinced support. User @西瓜妈PK西瓜妹 wrote: “Immediately went to Taobao and found [Amity’s account] after reading the post, bought five kinds of cookies, all delicious…Charity is different from giving alms; teaching these kids to be self-reliant and live with dignity is a greater charity than giving money and gifts. Wish everyone could support them.” Many other Weibo users commenting on Tao Ran’s post also opened their wallets in support.
Amity appeared a bit overwhelmed by its instant Internet fame. Two days after Tao Ran’s post, the official Weibo account of the bakery (@爱德面包坊), wrote, “Because of this post, we saw a surge of orders on Taobao. We had not prepared for this, [and] all inventories of our regular stores are empty. All staff at the bakery are working overtime …. Thank you so much for all the love from old and new fans, we will work harder!” Amity clarified that their workers receive overtime pay and alternate days off.
Amity’s existence is not news. As early as in 2009, People’s Daily‘s overseas edition reported on technical supervisor Kuang Zhenzhong, who teaches Amity employees how to bake. It was a typical state media hagiography that never attracted national attention. An English-language blog called China Philanthropy has also written about Amity Bakery. It says Amity Bakery was founded in 2007 by the Amity Foundation, a public foundation started in 1985 by Chinese Christians in Nanjing. Now, years later, Chinese social media has helped make Amity famous.
The positive buzz surrounding Amity provides a refreshing contrast to years of accumulated public anger towards inhuman treatment of China’s intellectually disabled. In 2010, eight intellectually disabled people were found in a chemical factory in the Western province of Xinjiang. Global Times then wrote that according to local official reports, those eight people had “allegedly been confined to the factory, toiling for at least three years without being paid or given any protective uniforms or equipment. And authorities said the workers were forced to live in shabby conditions, not given showers for years and fed the same food as the boss’ dogs.” In 2011, an undercover journalist posing as a disabled man found intellectually disabled men held as slave laborers in Chinese brick factories.
That treatment is not only a moral outrage, but a waste of talent. Amity supervisor Kuang Zhenzhong said in a 2009 interview that his intellectually disabled employees were better at focusing and staying patient. Kuang said, “Say for stirring, a basic step of baking. If you assigned a healthy person to stir all day, he/she will basically get fed up with it. But [employees with mental illness] are different; they are very careful and devoted.” Amity bakery says that their disabled employees work through a designed process, which dissects the whole production process and assigns each of the employees discrete parts.
Some Weibo users praised Amity, but could not resist adding in an apparent jab at corrupt Chinese officials. Film director @舒浩仑 commented: “Having a lower IQ does not mean one can’t do good deeds, they just learn more slowly. In fact they are much better than those with high IQs who do harm to the country and the people.”