They created an online trading platform equipped with a transparent, decentralized management system. Its mission: to contribute all profits to families of dissidents imprisoned by the Chinese government. They are the Food Delivery Party送饭党, or Song fan dang. In China, where the Communist Party is ubiquitous, groups in the country’s Internet subculture often identify or are identified as yet another “Party,” like the 50-cent Party or the Lead-the-way Party. Members of the Food Delivery Party are opinionated grass-root intellectuals in China who take part in debates about democracy, free speech, and justice.
The story starts with the Party’s leader, Xu Zhirong徐志戎, known as Rou Tangsen@肉唐僧 online. He began his career as a doctor, then wrote several books, and is presently a social activist famous for his extremely critical, sarcastic and free-minded speech.
In 2011, when social media just began to take off in China, Rou first used account on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, to raise funds for Ruan Yunfei‘s family. Ruan is a famous Chinese writer and a high-profile democracy activist who was arrested on charges of inciting subversion of state power in March 2011; he remains under residential surveillance after half a year in prison. Rou’s plan was to find 100 people each willing to donate 768 RMB (then about USD $117) annually so that Ruan’s teenage daughter and jobless wife could survive. At the time, the campaign was not public; Rou pleaded for donations by direct-messaging his followers, and successfully collected the money.
Encouraged by this experiment, Rou employed same methods for Tang Jitian, a human rights lawyer and a prominent figure in the Weiquan (rights defending) movement who was disbarred permanently in China and placed under house arrest. He then raised money for Xiao Yong, a young man who was arrested for spreading pictures of a street protest in Guangzhou calling for democratic reforms and demanding that Hu Jintao, the Communist Party Chief of China at the time, declare his personal assets.
For Xiao’s case, Rou publicly announced the fundraising effort. Rou has said that since Xiao’s case, he has received more than 5,000 messages on the microblogging platform asking him to organize donations. He has also been “invited to tea” by the authorities – a way that they warn individuals not to continue to engage in “sensitive” activities.
Rou then tried a new tactic to raise funds for Wang Dengchao, a policeman sentenced to 14 years in jail for organizing an event to honor Sun Yet-sen, the father of democracy in China. Using Taobao, the leading online trading platform in China, Rou sold the right to read an article for 1 RMB ($0.16 USD) per user. The article contained only two words: “Thank you.” Within 66 hours, 4,603 users had made the purchase 120,226 times. The online shop was shut down after the 66th hour by Taobao administrators, but the idea remained and became something new.
In early 2013, a Taobao-based open platform was created. Its eBay-like consumer-to-consumer model allowed Taobao stores or individual sellers to become part of the Food Delivery Party if they pledged 5-8% of their profits to the Party. In this “Meat Shop” – a play on Rou’s Internet handle – writers sell signed copies of their books and scholars sell their time. Anyone who wins one of the bidding wars can have a face-to-face meeting with a famous intellectual. Items on sale range from clothes to make-up, from the famous “Thank you” article to celebrities’ second-hand purses.
All of the people who’ve donated have formed a committee: one automatically becomes a member by contributing, and may be obligated to perform committee work if his or her name is randomly selected. The operations team has no decision-making power, and joint motions from the 15 Party members can be put to a committee to vote.
In one month, during which time the store was closed by authorities for about two weeks, 200,000 RMB, or about $32,600 USD was made via this platform. Its aim is to fundraise 3 million RMB ($490,000 USD) annually. Many support this objective, but also question the platform’s future prospects.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
One question on the minds of many is: who is Rou, really, and why he is doing this? Apart from his fiesty tweets that frequent online spats, he is known for ad hominem attacks and requests that girls send him sexy pictures. In this sense, Rou is somewhat representative of China’s liberal intellectuals, a group known for its “internal disagreements” as famous young author Han Han wrote in his article “On Democracy.” Yao Bo, an influential public opinion leader whose Weibo handle is @WuyueSanren@五岳散人, wrote “Among everyone I have known my whole life, Rou does the most amount of online name-calling, but he also is the one with best personal virtues; he is the smartest and has read the most books. Everything I know is merely one of his subsets of knowledge.唐僧是我在网上见过骂人最多的，也是我这辈子见过私德最好、最聪明、读书最多的人之一，我所有的知识都只是他的子集。”
Rou supports a middle class-driven social reform movement in China, but this has put him at odds with Mo Zhixu莫之许, another well-known dissent intellectual in China and long-time friend of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Unlike Rou, Mo believes in bottom-up engagement.
Mo and Rou fought it out online in June, at which point Rou’s actions and their usefulness were called into question. During this period, Rou also argued the importance of decentralizing the Food Delivery Party and taking himself out of the center of it. He wrote, “I will leave the Food Delivery Party in half a year. If this party can’t develop on its own, then it’s a failure.” Rou has also stated that he may ask people he dislikes to quit or take their donations back, calling into question his earlier statement about keeping his distance from the Party.
According to Rou, there are now more than 9,000 members of the Food Delivery Party. On social media, however, the group operates largely below the radar. A search for the Food Delivery Party on Sina Weibo returns few results, none relevant.
Rou has not posted much lately about food delivery activities. He is busy setting up a cafe in Dalian, Liaoning Province, which will also operate with the help of volunteers and donate all profits to the public good. “I’m interested in exploring a self-governance practice in this shop,” Rou has remarked.