Money for nothing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 12:00am

An increasing number of beggars are plying their trade across China's cities with Shanghai and Guangzhou seeing an influx in recent months. A niche begging style has developed in each city but they share an alarmingly growing social problem.

Guangzhou's streets have two types of beggars operating - those who suffer from physical or mental handicaps and the healthy.

Among the healthy beggars are minority women from other provinces such as Guangxi or Hunan. Hordes of dirt-faced children dressed in rags who look like characters from a Dickens novel accompany these women. Like modern-day Fagans leading a band of juvenile thieves, these women command absolute control over the children who do the begging.

In the past several months, the numbers of beggars with small children has increased. They usually loiter near the Garden Hotel or Teem Plaza where children, aged between 3 and 12, tug at a pedestrian's jacket asking for money. These children usually will not give up their pursuit until either they are given money or are chased off. According to national laws, beggars cannot be forced to leave the streets or stay in shelters. Most of these Fagan-like women prefer begging because they can make more money than they can in any government-run welfare institution.

'I don't go there because they don't give you anything to eat there,' said a Guiyang woman with four small children while begging for money on the overpass near the Garden Hotel.

Most locals have no sympathy for these women. 'They're not that poor,' said a waitress from the Elephant and Castle Bar on Huanshi Road. 'If we call security to chase them away, they'll just run around the corner and return later.'

Newspapers and internet sites report that many of Guangzhou's beggars own mobile phones and have daytime jobs. Some local papers report that beggars can make 20 to 200 yuan a night.

The local Civil Affairs Bureau is discussing a plan to designate 'No Begging' areas but no decisions has been made.

Aside from shopping areas, beggars are often seen near government buildings or police stations. During trade fairs, beggars from nearby provinces and cities flock to Guangzhou to camp outside the event site, usually near the China Hotel.

Tourist sites are also popular places such as the temple on Liu Rong Road. On one occasion a local reportedly counted 25 beggars about 100 metres from the temple. The group included healthy and handicapped beggars. Two of the 25 beggars were using small children to solicit money from people. Beggars along Guangzhou's main thoroughfares is an eyesore and nuisance for pedestrians and tourists alike. So far, the city only carries out a clampdown when a large numbers of foreigners visit.

This social problem will not disappear quickly and stiffer penalties are either required or better living alternatives implemented before Guangzhou's street people consider changing their lifestyle. Meanwhile, the city runs the risk of becoming a haven for vagabonds.