Begging for help

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 12:00am

Last week, Guangzhou's deputy party secretary, Zhang Guifang, floated the idea of barring beggars from parts of the city. His idea was so well received that security guards immediately chased vagrants from places likely to be designated 'no begging zones', including the popular Shangxia Jiu shopping district. In fact, some guards in shopping complexes in the Tianhe district might have had advance notice of the move and had already started getting rid of beggars a week earlier.

Soon, Guangzhou will not only be a sanitised city with no beggars, but motorbikes will be a thing of the past, too, as from May 1, they will be banned from the city's main arteries.

While it is true that there are too many motorbikes - 370,000 in total - and they contribute to traffic congestion, noise and air pollution, it cannot be said that beggars are swarming all over the city.

This is the case even after the abolition of the custody and repatriation system last July when more vagrants arrived in the mainland's richest city, knowing they would no longer be picked up and sent home because they had no right to live here.

Thanks to the system, beggars in Guangzhou were almost non-existent, in sharp contrast to the scene in other developing Asian cities, which makes it unfathomable why people would support measures to kick out yet another disadvantaged group. Beggars and motorcyclists are trying to survive without much help from the government. If they must be forced out of busy areas because they are a blemish on Guangzhou's image, or take up precious space away from cars produced in government-promoted factories which crowd the limited road system, then at least there should be accompanying measures to alleviate their hardship.

The government is taking the easy way out by making beggars disappear, in the same way that smokers can be kept out of no-smoking areas. But unlike smokers, beggars do not choose their situation, while many motorcyclists, given the choice, would rather drive a car.

Even without banning begging in certain places, the government could make the situation more tenable by breaking up the child begging syndicates because the law allows for vagrant children to be forcefully taken into custody and put into homes. Why has this not been done?

More ominous, allowing the ban to be implemented means returning arbitrary powers to local authorities to restrict the movement of Chinese people. These had been taken away when the custody and repatriation system was abolished.

A more humane approach to the problem would be to allow charitable organisations to be set up to care for the underprivileged, as the government may not have the financial resources to meet all its obligations.

A city as rich as Guangzhou can support social and non-governmental organisations which could provide the charitable services the government cannot afford. It is up to officials to allow more societies to be set up.



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