Friends of the Disabled: A High-Tech Enterprise for People with Disabilities

China Development Brief, No. 51 (Fall 2011)

中文 English

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared online in 2012 and we are re-publishing it to mark the  2014 International Day of Persons with Disabilities which focuses on the role of technology in creating enabling working environments.


The growing popularity of social enterprise and social innovation in China is a reflection of multiple developments.  One is the government’s recent push for social innovation to manage the varied interests and tensions in Chinese society. Another is China’s globalization which is introducing international concepts and practices such as social enterprise and social investment. Still another has to do with the gradual mainstreaming of civil society in China, which has been remarked upon in other recent articles, and manifests itself in growing interactions between NGOs, on one hand, and the business and government sectors on the other.

It is unclear when news of Friends of the Disabled (FOD) as a successful social enterprise spread like wildfire in NGO circles. Even more surprising is that it is a well-known high-tech social enterprise, yet Zheng Weining, FOD’s founder, for a long time had no idea what a social enterprise was. They just ended up here, without any influence from the outside world.

“The World’s Second, China’s First” social enterprise

FOD was started as a company by Zheng when he was already over 40 years old, and has been developing for 13 years. He endured a great deal of hardship to turn a small enterprise of just a few people into a high-tech  group that has tens of millions in assets, branch offices in Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Hainan, and initiatives in software development, cartoons and animation, e-commerce, and other areas. What people admire even more is that this miracle was created by people with disabilities with Zheng as their representative. At FOD they unleashed a huge potential force that is often overlooked.

FOD has just relocated to the Lotus North district. Before this, they were located in a residential building in Jingtian North district in Shenzhen’s Futian District. In the new residence, one floor of hallways and rooms has been transformed to become a barrier-free office facility. There, disabled employees from different places all over the country come together to fight for their dignity and value. On the entrance wall eight characters come into view and the slogan “the more disabled you are, the more beautiful you are” is written. This was inscribed by Zhang Heidi, before she became the Chair of China’s Disabled Persons’ Federation, and has also become the Zhang Weining’s motto. Zheng, who is tall and large, is often found sitting behind his desk working on the group’s affairs. He speaks in a loud and clear voice while smoking. One cabinet on the wall of his office is full of honorary certificates and photos of him with leaders.

In the early 1990s after the death of his father, Zheng, a hemophilia patient moved south with his mother from Wuhan to Shenzhen in order to obtain blood for his therapy. At that time Shenzhen was the only city relying on voluntary blood donations for clinical use. In 1999 the passing of Zheng’s mother came as a serious blow, and he became suicidal. But with the support of his wife and daughter, he decided to use his inheritance of 300,000 yuan, a seven-passenger vehicle and two homes, to  start his own business.

Zheng though did not know where to start to find other entrepreneurs with disabilities. He made a phone call to a well-known local private volunteer organization – the Shenzhen Volunteers Association. The Association was able to identified five people with different disability types who came together with a ”come and see what happens” mentality.

Liu Haijun, the CEO of FOD, recalls the situation in those days. “Although it wasn’t easy to act, as long as there was an opportunity we would go after it, Our members were unified and not easily dissuaded”. Zheng’s innate understanding of the disabled is an important reason that FOD was able reach earnings in the tens of millions with a staff turnover rate of only 0.72 percent. Partly due to personnel stability, FOD has been able to maintain specialized standards in its scientific research and was authorized by Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute the rights to use its software and systems engineering platforms.

In the beginning, Zheng used his own home as a space to launch the business, bought some computers and tested the water for his new life’s first step. During the start up period he used his own vehicle to take some of the founding members from every corner of the city to his place of residence that was being used as the office. To make it easier for all and save on gas, everyone came to eat and live together, learning and using new technologies.

In 1999, the “Chinese Disabled Persons Network” was officially founded to provide services such as rehabilitation guidance, matchmaking, employment advice, and psychological counselling. In addition it acted as a internet service provider to disabled people both in China and overseas. The site was later said to have become the social welfare website with the highest ‘click’ rate within the Chinese community. In January 2001 the Chinese Disabled Persons Network established a joint stock company for the disabled that became the predecessor of today’s FOD.

With the website’s successful start, everybody saw that they had the ability and strength to succeed, but found that this kind of work brought no real income. With Zheng’s mother’s 300,000 inheritance rapidly diminishing, they came up with the idea of a “network to support the network”. In May 2001, after the Shenzhen Municipal Government granted internet café licenses, their website began running “Care Shelter” Internet cafes and the staff began to enjoy a 600 yuan a month salary.

However due to a lack of core internet technology the ‘Chinese Disabled Persons Network’ was unable to make a breakthrough. It was not until October 2002 when a young man named Li Hong joined them that circumstances began to change. Li Hong was a graduate from Peking University where he had studied physics, and was seeking work but due to his disability had yet to find an opportunity. He was running out of ideas when he received a message from Zheng and decided to travel south and join him. Thanks to his understanding of internet technology, he quickly improved the Chinese Disabled Persons Network’s operations and laid out the high-tech direction that FOD would later take. The team led by Li Hong began to undertake website design projects from the corporate and government sector to expand their sources of income. After gaining recognition, FOD’s start-up team slowly gained confidence and strength. Some customers even started coming to them to request help in developing applications software.

Later, as more specialists came in, and it became certified as a national and international high tech enterprise, FOD gained the ability and capacity to take on almost any business. FOD’s scale continued to expand, eventually resulting in the FOD Group with 28 offices in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Hainan and other places around China, over 1200 disabled employees and a sales revenue in 2010 of over 94 million.

In 10 years there are two facts that Zheng is particularly proud of: “First, I never received any financial support from the government’s Department of Civil Affairs, and secondly, I never applied for bank loans.”  Of course, FOD received other support from the local government such as free space for its headquarters and branch offices, and government contracts during its early website construction phase.

FOD utilized new technologies that enabled the disabled to make full use of their own special skills and strengths, gain economic independence and realize their self-worth, developing into a mature support model for people with disabilities. More local governments have invited FOD to help them come up with business models to address employment problems in the local disabled population. Zheng realised that FOD alone could not solve the problem of unemployment for so many people with disabilities and needed to get more people involved. So FOD put forth a “High-tech Employment for the Disabled” model: FOD acted as an incubator for new social enterprises, providing start-up funds, branding operations and enterprise-community management models and barrier-free guarantees. They relied on the local industrial environment, using idle resources from local Civil Affairs departments, and commercial methods to achieve the societal goal of employing disabled people in local high-tech enterprises. This FOD model is known as the “social enterprise incubator” and is gradually gaining in popularity.

FOD’s model received high praise from Xu Yongguang the chairman of the Narada Foundation: “Due to its international innovation, FOD is not only China’s most successful social enterprise but also outstanding internationally. If Professor Yunus’ Grameen Bank for the poor in Bangladesh is the world’s first social enterprise, then Zheng’s ‘Friends of the Disabled’ is the world’s second.”

How does FOD, a “national high tech enterprise”, bear any relation to a social enterprise? This all goes back to 2009, when Zheng in his “big brother” role, made a major decision to use FOD to make a huge profit while remaining a non-profit organisation.

The “Zheng Weining Charitable Foundation” as Part of “One Body, Two Faces”

From the time he started the Chinese Disabled Persons Network, Zheng decided to orient FOD’s goals toward that of a welfare-type enterprise. No matter how it developed, it should serve the disabled. At the same time that FOD expanded, Zheng began to reflect on a critical question: what would happen to FOD if he was no longer there? How would the FOD Group maintain its plan for the disabled to participate jointly in work and life? Would FOD gradually become more commercialized? This was Zheng’s concern.

In 2009, after surviving a major physical condition, Zheng made another major decision: in the presence of a lawyer as a witness he wrote in his will that all his shares be donated to the work of the disabled, rather than be inherited by his family. A feasible approach was to set up a private foundation, which also meant donating all of his 90 percent personal holdings in FOD and his 51 percent share in all FOD branches, as well the value of the trademark brands of “Friends of the Disabled” and “Zheng Weining”. In November that year, Zheng founded the Shenzhen Zheng Weining Charitable Foundation under his own name. Also in 2009 the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Shenzhen Municipal Government signed the “Ministry-City Agreement” encouraging the first foundation to be established after Shenzhen’s promotion of the comprehensive Civil Affairs reform1.

A major strategic decision of the ‘Zheng Weining Charitable Foundation’ was to comply with the “Shenzhen City Zheng Weining Charitable Foundation Constitution” which was drafted before its establishment, and give responsibility to a governing board. The first board had nine members who came mainly from FOD and the Shenzhen Volunteer Team to ensure the charitable nature of the Foundation’s future development. By means of a transfer of shares, the ‘Zheng Weining Charitable Foundation’ became the property of FOD and its branches which assumed the controlling share.  Within the board, all members, including Zheng, had equal decision-making rights.

In addition, Friends of the Disabled then established several social welfare organisations. In 2005 they founded and registered a social organisation – the Shenzhen Information Accessibility Research Council. And in 2009 they founded a civil non-enterprise unit – the Shenzhen Friends of the Disabled Social Work Services Center, and the Chinese Disabled Persons Services Network Volunteers. Zheng is the legal representative for all these groups. Although each group’s registration methods and content of serving society are not the same, their nature and objectives are; namely, the maintenance and promotion of information and interests of the disabled and their equal participation and integration in society. These social organizations together comprise one of the “faces” in the “one body, two faces” governance structure, with FOD and the Foundation making up a complete system. The Foundation is responsible for decision-making, and FOD is responsible for the commercial aspects, while FOD’s social organizations are responsible for its services. Today, FOD has formed the framework for a “trinity”: the Foundation manages the head, and the social organizations and FOD manage the development of the other two nodes2.

Next Stop, the ‘Friends of the Disabled’ Model

In the Foundation’s decision-making, the hope for the future is that FOD will spread their experience and work model so that more people with disabilities can benefit from their experience. This has already become the focus of FOD’s future work.

According to FOD’s social enterprise incubator model, the local government is responsible for solving the problem of office space, and FOD is responsible for the output management model, a mature program, and technical training. The prerequisites for this cooperation are that Friends of the Disabled must maintain a 51 percent controlling stake in each branch and the branch general manager must be appointed by the Foundation and the FOD Group. The Group decides the direction of the branch funds, and must meet the employment requirements that the proportion of disabled people employed at the branches is above 70 percent. Zheng stated that if these conditions are met, each branch can be expected to be profitable within eight months of establishment. Then it can be handed over to the local disabled staff to manage. Furthermore, for these branches, (except the Shenzhen branch) all profit made will remain locally to ensure the branch’s sustainable development.

Following the growth of FOD’s social enterprise incubator model, Zheng is actively seeking the introduction of external funding. He is more inclined to rely on loans or investments of shares rather than donations. He thinks, as a social enterprise, they must have the ability to make a profit and make repayments or else they will have difficulty expanding.  But who is going to invest? This is the problem that Zheng needs to think about.

Zheng is very wary of investments by the business and government sectors. On the future of investment in FOD, he worries that if the proportion of business investment is too high, then too much emphasis will be placed on profit. At the same time, he is worried that government investment may turn FOD’s social assets into government property. Therefore Zheng hopes to have more foundations and public institutions with similar values and missions invest in Friends of the Disabled to help maintain its public interest nature. For this reason, FOD and Zheng Weining are in the process of discussions with leading foundations such as Narada Foundation and YouChange Social Entrepreneur Foundation to actively seek their support.

Under Zheng’s lead, FOD’s “one body, two faces” structure is strongly guaranteeing the  normal operation of Friends of the Disabled. This allows thousands of people with disabilities to take advantage of the high-tech platform to develop their lives and work for the better. It helps people with disabilities gain the first step to survival and development with dignity. Finally, it serves as a lesson for public interest organisations interested in exploring the road of localizing social enterprises.

  1. Editor’s Note: In 2009, as a result of the “Ministry-City Agreement”, Shenzhen became an experimental site for the registration of social organizations and foundations. Soon afterwards, Jet Li’s One Foundation which had been trying unsuccessfully to register in Shanghai as a public foundation, was able to finally register as a public foundation in Shenzhen. 

  2. Editor’s Note: “One body, two faces” is a rough translation. The idea seems to be that Zheng Weining has created a single entity with multiple forms, some profit making and others non-profit in nature. 


不 知何时,“残友”(集团)作为一家成功的社会企业的消息在NGO圈里不胫而走。更令人意外的 是,作为响当当的高科技企业,残友的创办人郑卫宁很长时间内并不知道社会企业是为何物,他们一路就这么走过来,并不因为外界的看法而有所变化。


“残 友”是郑卫宁在40多岁的时候创立的一家公司,至今发展也有13个年头了。期间经过无数的艰辛,从几个人的小企业变成了如今拥有上千万资产的高新科技技术集团,在深圳、珠海、海南等地都有自己的分公司,涉及软件、动漫、电子商务等多个领域。更让人佩服的是,创造这个奇迹的竟是以郑卫宁为代表的残障人士,他 们在残友发挥了经常被人忽视的巨大的潜能。
刚 刚搬到莲花北小区新家的残友,之前就在深圳福田区景田北小区的居民楼里,一层通道和房间都被改造成了无障碍设施的办公环境,这些来自天南地北五湖四海的残障员工聚集在一起,为自己的尊严和价值而奋斗。楼道的入口,“越是残疾,越要美丽”八个字映入眼帘,这是当时身份还不是中国残疾人联合会主席的张海迪题写 的,也成为郑卫宁的座右铭。身材高大的郑卫宁,因为身体的原因,常坐在桌子背后处理集团的大小事务。他喜欢抽着烟说话,说话时声音洪亮。办公室内满满一墙柜子里放着荣誉证书和他与领导人的合影 。
20 世纪90年代初,血友病病人郑卫宁,在父亲离世后为获得治疗用的血液,随母亲由武汉南下深圳,这在当时是全国惟一靠义务献血来满足临床用血的城市。 1999年母亲去世。这给了郑卫宁严重的打击,曾一度有过自杀的行为,但在妻子及女儿的全力支持下,他决定将父母的遗产:30万元人民币、一部七人车及2 所个人住宅,用于开创自己的事业,做“最后一搏”。
1999 年,“中华残疾人服务网”正式成立,设有康复指导、征婚交友、就业市场、心理辅导等,此外还为海内外残障人士提供包括服务器免费空间和免费二级域名在内的全方位网上服务。该网站后来据说还成为华人社区中点击率最高的福利网站。2001年1月,中华残疾人服务网站注册成立了一家残友 网社股份制公司,完成股份化内部划分。这就是如今的残友集团的前身。
网 站的成功搭建,让大伙看到自己有能力和实力投入到互联网的大潮中来。但大伙发现,这个工作仍然没有任何收入可言,而且郑卫宁母亲留下的30万元保命钱快见 底了,于是他们想到了“以网养网”的想法。2001年5月,在深圳市政府特别发放了网吧牌照后,网站开始经营“爱心庇护”网吧,员工也开始有每月600元左右的工资收入。
然 而,由于缺乏核心技术,中华残疾人服务网始终没能打破互联网技术的瓶颈。直到2002年10月一个叫李虹的小伙加入,情况才有了变化。李虹毕业于北京大学 物理系,因身体的原因四处求职,没有找到发展机会。在一筹莫展的时候,看到郑卫宁给他发出的留言,决定南下加入。由于他对互联网技术的精通,迅速撑起了中华残疾人服务网的运行,也为残友日后走上高科技路子指明了方向。李虹率领的团队开始承接来自企业和政府的网站建设工程的订单,拓展了收入来源。在获得社会 认可后,残友的创业团队慢慢积累了信心和实力,一些客户开始找上门来要求为其开发应用软件。
其 后,随着各路好手的加入,以及频频获得国内外高科技技术的认证资格,残友有能力也有实力承接任何一单生意。残友的规模随后不断扩大,最终形成了如今的残友集团:在深圳、珠海、海南等地拥有28家分公司,共有1 200多名残障员工,销售收入在2010年高达9 400多万元。
残 友借助新知识经济时代的技术,让残障人群充分发挥自身的优势和特长,获得了经济上的独立和自我价值的实现,形成了成熟的残障人士的支持发展模式。越来越多的地方政府纷纷邀请残友前去复制残友的模式,为当地解决残障人士就业难题。郑卫宁意识到,光靠残友一家解决不了那么多残障人士的就业问题,需要更多的力量 参与进来。于是残友集团摸索和归纳出了“残障群体依托高科技就业”模式:为新社会企业提供启动资金、品牌运营和企业加社区的管理模式和无障碍保障等孵化条件,依托当地的产业环境,利用当地政府民生部门的闲置资源,以商业的手段实现当地残障人高科技就业的社会目的。残友将这套模式称为“社会企业孵化项目”并 逐步推广。


自中华残疾人服务网成立伊始,郑卫宁就将残友的宗旨定位为一家福利性质的企业,不管怎么发展都一定要为残障人群服务。在残友逐渐壮大的同时,郑卫宁也在思考一些不得不思考的问题:如果残友此时没有他,会是什么样的情形?残友集团如何保持以残障人为主体共同参与共同工作、生活的设计呢?会不会变得追逐商业化? 这些都是郑卫宁的担忧。
在 2009年一次因身体状况而死里逃生之后,郑卫宁做出了自己人生中的又一次重大决定:在律师在场见证下,将自己的全部股份捐给残疾人事业,而非由家人继承。可行的做法就是成立非公募基金会,而这也意味着将自己在残友集团的90%的个人股份控股和各分公司51%的个人股份控股以及“残友”和“郑卫宁”的驰 名商标品牌价值等全部捐赠出来。当年11月,郑卫宁以个人名字成立了深圳市郑卫宁慈善基金会,这也是2009年民政部与深圳市政府签订“部市协议”,鼓励 深圳推动民政事业综合配套改革之后成立的第一家基金会。
郑 卫宁慈善基金会的重大决策,遵守基金会未成立之前就制定的《深圳市郑卫宁慈善基金会章程》并交由理事会负责。第一届理事会成员9人,主要来自残友集团及深圳义工团队,以确保基金会未来发展的公益性。通过股份转移,郑卫宁慈善基金会成为残友集团和各分公司的产权所有者,实现了对后两者控股。而在理事会中,包括郑卫宁在内的理事会成员拥有平等的决策投票权。
此 外,残友之前还相继成立了几个社会公益组织,如2005年注册成立的社会团体——深圳市信息无障碍研究会、2009年9月成立的民办非企业——深圳市残友社工服务社,以及中华残疾人服务网义工队,它们的法人代表都是郑卫宁,其注册形式和服务社会内容虽不相同,但性质和目标却高度一致,即:维护与推动残障群体的信息权益,并助其平等参与融入社会。这些社会组织共同构成了残友“一体两面”的治理结构中的“面”,与基金会、残友集团共同成为一个整体:基金会负责 决策,残友集团负责商业,而残友社会组织则承担着残友的服务。如今的残友已形成“三位一体”的架构:基金会为管理前端,公益机构和残友集团为发展双翼。


残 友的社会企业孵化模式是,地方政府负责解决场地问题,残友集团负责输出管理模式、成熟的项目和技术培训等。合作的前提是,残友必须保持对每家分公司51% 的控股权,分公司总经理由基金会和集团委派,集团决定分公司资金使用方向,并要求所有分公司残疾人就业比例必须达到70%以上。 郑卫宁表示,如果所有条 件顺利的话,一个分公司从建立到盈利的时间只需8个月。之后,可以完全交由本地残障人士来打理,实现本地化,而且这些分公司(除深圳外)的所有盈利都会留在当地,供分公司持续发展。
郑 卫宁对资本和政府的介入都很警惕,他担心未来残友的投资中,如果商业资本的比例过高,企业容易把逐利作为目标,此外他也担心政府的介入,会使残友的社会资产变成政府的财产,故而郑卫宁希望有更多与残友在理念和使命上相近的基金会等公益机构可以加盟投资,在残友集团中持股,这将有助于保持残友的公益性质。为 此,残友和郑卫宁正在与国内走在前列的南都公益基金会、友成企业家扶贫基金会等沟通商洽,积极寻求他们的支持。
在 郑卫宁的带领下,残友“一体两面”的架构强有力地保证了残友这个大盘子的正常运转,更让上千名残障人士得以利用高新技术平台给自己的工作和生活带来了新的转机,在为残障人士获得有尊严地生存和发展方面先行一步,而这也为有意探索社会企业本土之路的公益组织提供了借鉴和思考。

Wang Hui is CDB Contributing Writer

Translated by Holly Zhang

Reviewed by Peter Maa

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