Ray of hope

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am

Ma Chaohun was desperate. The farmer from impoverished Ningxia, in northern China, had been sentenced to death after killing his wife in the belief she was having an affair. As he awaited the end of his life on death row, his concerns were not for himself, but his two sons. He wrote to the only person he believed could help him - Zhang Shuqin, a woman who has devoted her life to caring for the children of prisoners. He begged her to look after his boys.

'He was afraid that Jiadong and Jiacai faced a bad future because they would have no parents left and his family was so poor. He feared they would grow up no good,' says Qian Hong, one of Zhang's assistants. 'They were living with relatives. But without any parents, they were a burden to their family.'

Zhang received the letter during a busy time at work. She read it and considered its contents. Every year, she receives hundreds of similar letters from jailed parents pleading with her to take their children into Sun Village near Beijing, one of just four homes in mainland China for the offspring of prisoners. Zhang had grown up around Ningxia, from where the letter had originated and from where the children would have to be fetched. Bordering on Inner Mongolia, it is a tough part of the world and difficult to reach. Zhang put the letter aside for the time being.

'Then one day, she picked the letter up again and called the jail to find out what conditions the boys were living in. They told her Ma had been executed an hour ago,' says Qian. Shocked and guilt-ridden, Zhang arranged for Jiadong, then 11, and Jiacai, nine, to join her in Beijing. 'She felt awful because he died not knowing what would happen to his sons.'

About one million children on the mainland have parents in jail, but no law dictates what happens to them. Many are shunted from relatives to friends to orphanages. Often, they are abused or exploited along the way, the victims of a cultural prejudice against the offspring of prisoners. In imperial China, relatives could be executed along with a wrongdoer. After 1949, Mao Zedong taught people that 'the son of a hero is a hero, the son of a bad egg is a bad egg'. Tainted by association, many end up on the streets, where the cycles of violence and crime are perpetuated.

Awareness of the problem is growing, with a law to protect the children under discussion, according to a spokesman for the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing. Progress is painfully slow. In December, for the first time, the government mentioned the issue in a long document on social order that called on Communist Party and government departments across the country to 'help the children of convicts, abandoned children and other minors facing difficulties to overcome practical problems and help them grow up healthily'. In the arcane world of mainland politics, the mention is a sign that such work can go ahead unhindered.

For now, the only hope for the most extreme cases is Granny Zhang, or Zhang nainai, as the 115 children of Sun Village call her. 'A lot of people say, 'Why are you helping bad children?'' says Zhang, 58, a handsome, forceful woman with curly hair, a direct gaze and compassionate brown eyes. 'That's really unfair. You shouldn't separate children into the sheep and the goats. All kids are equal and cannot choose their fate. We want these children to be the same as other children, to live prosperous and peaceful lives.'

Without a cent of government funding and struggling to find money in a society where philanthropy remains an unfamiliar concept, Zhang's efforts are barely scratching the surface of need. Yet her hope is that from her village, feelings of compassion and responsibility for this vulnerable group of children will spread across the mainland.

Zhang sits in her office in a two-storey building at Sun Village cradling her pet dog, Gege, a white Pekinese mix-breed that is wearing a red velvet coat. Even though it's February and only a few degrees outside, she has turned off the heating to save money. Outside, the children are streaming home from a day at the local primary school in the neighbouring village of Banqiao. 'Home' is a collection of nine huts, simple structures with corrugated walls topped with blue or red roofs, grouped around a pond that has been drained for the winter, leaving a thick layer of dried mud. In the summer, the children grow lilies here, harvesting the bulbs to eat.

Inside the huts, which sleep about 15 children each, plain metal bunk beds line moveable inner walls, which are sparsely decorated with tinsel and kids' drawings. Tea and snacks can be made in a primitive kitchen at the back. In the centre is a melamine table where the children do their homework, often until midnight, although strictly speaking the lights are switched off at 10pm. A television stands in the corner and collapsible chairs are propped against the walls. The children have almost no possessions. Shoes are taken off outside and stacked in a cupboard. Everything the children wear is donated; an eclectic, obviously second-hand collection of colourful shoes, coats and hats.

Behind the office building are large fields and an orchard, about four hectares' worth, where the children grow fruit and vegetables. With the garden to supplement supplies, Zhang is able to keep food costs to the tiny daily sum of just three yuan for each child. Money is always a problem at Sun Village. Meals consist of rice and vegetables, with corn soup and corn bread. Meat is rare. 'If we get a donation, we eat more meat,' Zhang says.

At the end of a northern winter, the ground between the huts is dry and brown. The only colour is in the buildings' walls and the children's cast-off clothes. Three teenage boys are at work in the pond, burning old paper. One is Ma Jiadong from Ningxia, now 15. He refuses to speak to visitors; instead, he chases his mates around while armed with a shovel.

A concrete parade ground in front of the office building provides space for roll call. A male teacher counts heads before sending them for a jog around the pond. With military precision, the children line up then stand at ease. Two boys are sent to face the wall in punishment. Discipline is strict and the children are expected to help themselves. Each evening before dinner in the canteen, they gather for a review of the day with teacher Wang Donghui, Zhang's second husband. Wang reprimands those who have misbehaved, hauling them out the front for a scolding. He jabs a boy in the chest, hard, four times. The boy had been smirking, says Wang. Eventually, the boy admits his error and is sent back to the line.

'The problem is how to lead the children,' says carer Shao Hong. 'They need a man to lead them - especially the boys. We try to teach them to find the good things in themselves and how to do good things for others, and not to expect other people to do things for them.'

A former member of the correctional services in Shaanxi province, Zhang worked in jails for 10 years until the mid-1990s. 'So many prisoners hadn't heard from their children for years. They had no idea how they were doing,' she recalls. The saddest cases were the mothers, she says. Many, especially those serving long sentences, had been jailed for killing abusive husbands. Sun Village is home to a family of three girls whose mother put poison in her husband's soup. Back then, such women were routinely shot; today, attitudes are slowly changing, the concept of self-defence is gaining ground, and they might be sentenced to life in jail.

'I met women whose hair turned white; women who broke out of jail to see their children; women who went mad. Well, I am a woman, and I am a mother,' says the mother-of-two. 'I didn't just have a policeman's eye. I had woman's eye too and I thought, 'I must help them.''

Zhang also knew about poverty. Born in Shaanxi to a shopkeeper's family, she grew up in relative affluence in the countryside, where hardship was the norm. It instilled in her a deep loyalty to the poor. 'My playmates were all very poor villagers,' she says.

She trained as a barefoot doctor specialising in Chinese medicine and travelled the countryside, treating poor farmers and delivering babies in hovels or fields. 'Sometimes they were too poor even for clothes for their new baby, and I would take off my jacket and wrap the baby in that.' Zhang watched children die for lack of medicine and saw mothers bleed to death after giving birth. 'It really hurt me.'

To cope, she began to write. 'I wrote essays and stories, all about poor people. I wanted to be there.'

In 1985, aged 37, Zhang left the poor mountains of Shaanxi and Ningxia and transferred to the city of Xian to work in prisons. 'These people were also the poorest of society,' she says. 'But their kids shouldn't pay for their parents' mistakes. I felt I had to help. And not just me - the government had to help too.'

In 1994, Zhang and some friends drew up a questionnaire and sent it to 10 women's jails, asking inmates where their children were and who was taking care of them. 'We gathered information on 90 children and picked 50 of the worst-off cases to see. In those days, we cycled around everywhere, so we were very limited in what we could do - some children were just too far away.'

Zhang chose 16 children to help and, funded by a generous local family, she set up her first home in 1996 for the children of prisoners in Sanyuan, outside Xianyang city, in Shaanxi province. Two years later, she opened a home in western Xian, disturbed by the fact that convicts' children in the city were more likely to commit crimes than those in rural areas. In 1998, she opened a third village, which would later close.

The next year, Zhang moved to Beijing. She wanted the government to help and knew she needed to be in the capital to lobby officials. With the personal help of a former vice-minister, she established a home in an old hospital in Banqiao (later moving to a larger location nearby), leaving colleagues to run the operations in Shaanxi. 'It was very hard. I had no contacts here and I was like a one-person beggar's association,' she says, laughing.

In 2004, Zhang opened a fourth home near Xinxiang city, in Henan province, after being flooded with requests for help. She plans to expand further if she can find the money for an orphanage on the Gansu-Ningxia border and two more homes for the children of convicts, one in Kazuo county, an ethnic Mongolian area in Liaoning province, and another in Ningxia for Muslim children. 'In these regions, people are poor and the crime rates are higher.'

Life is a constant scrabble for money. Zhang sends all her children to school, which costs 600 yuan a year for each child at primary level, and 1,000 yuan for secondary. Four children are training to be mechanics in Baoding, in neighbouring Hebei province, since the fees in Beijing are too high. Zhang is proud that 10 of her children may sit college entrance exams, although it's unclear how she would pay the university fees.

Worryingly for Zhang, since none of the children has a Beijing residence permit, she cannot buy them health insurance; only accident insurance. 'It's what I'm most afraid of - medical costs,' she says.

Still, Zhang's homes are beginning to attract domestic and overseas donors. Hong Kong businessman Cheung To, founder and chief executive officer of UDomain, a well-known web hosting company, is setting up a bilingual, Hong Kong-based website for free and has pledged to buy advertisements for Zhang on Google and Yahoo, who are among his customers. Setting up in Hong Kong means Zhang can receive foreign currency donations via credit card, which is difficult to do on the mainland. The project is scheduled to launch next month.

Shantou-born Cheung heard about Sun Village two years ago. 'I'm not very rich, but it's not a question of being rich; it's a question of if you want to do something,' he says. He recognises the formidable financial and social hurdles the children face. 'Chinese people really pay attention to other people's backgrounds. It's very common,' he says.

Acceptance is a challenge on the mainland, says Trinidadian psychologist Krishna Persad, who holds workshops for caregivers at Sun Village, conducts individual psychological assessments of the children and holds a story hour for the seven- to 12-year-olds each Saturday. They have all the emotional problems of children of prisoners anywhere in the world: depression, anger, abuse experiences and a longing for love and family. The centre attracts many volunteer workers, but has a very small permanent staff, which means the children cannot form stable attachments.

Xu Zhi, 12, and Xu Dongdong, two, are lucky - they have each other. Xu Zhi is visiting her brother in the infants' hut, where he has been turning somersaults up and down the room. The children's labourer father, Xu Guoliang, was jailed for corruption. He escaped from jail, divorced Xu Zhi's mother and found a new girlfriend. Dongdong was born in January 2004. Three months later, Xu Guoliang was captured and re-jailed, with five years' extra for escaping. Dongdong's mother disappeared, abandoning the two children.

'I don't want to go back,' says Xu Zhi, picking up Dongdong and hugging him hard. 'Because if I did,

I would have to leave my brother behind and there's no way I will do that.'

Despite the fact her father reportedly beat her, Xu Zhi says she misses him. An impish girl, she says she wants to study physics and can recite fairytales in moving, colourful detail. She especially loves The Little Matchstick Girl and Cinderella. 'Cinderella's mother and sisters beat her,' she says and falls silent.

For Xu Zhi and Dongdong, like many of the children in the home, Sun Village represents a chance for a better future. 'It's better than anything they would ever have, with or without their parents,' says Persad.