One man helps put thousands through school
Zhang Kun spoke with Sally Wong
For more than two decades, Zhang Kun has dedicated his life to helping underprivileged children get a shot at a better life through a proper education. Due to his efforts, the 66-year-old entrepreneur and former teacher from Dongguan, Guangdong, has earned the nickname 'Uncle Kun'.
Today, his work is done mainly through the One-Thousandth Public Service Centre, which he founded. More than 1,400 sponsors have offered long-term financial support to educate children and young people in poverty-stricken areas, with more than 4,200 benefiting so far. But the group almost didn't get off the ground, as it was repeatedly denied official registration, until Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang stepped in.
How did you decide on the name and why was registration so difficult?
We first tried to register it in 2006, and we failed six times. Initially, we could not find a work unit to be affiliated with [as all social organisations are required]. But the restriction was lifted last year in Guangdong. We named it One-Thousandth Public Service Centre because we want to encourage people to take one-thousandth of their earnings and use it to help others. It's a small enough amount that it won't really affect the donor's standard of living. We were again denied registration earlier last year because some government staff members thought our name hinted at forced donations.
Were you surprised that Wang helped you with the registration ahead of National Day?
Yes, very much. But I am also worried, because the act has offended some local officials.
What made you want to do this?
I started sending money to children in poor areas in 1989. My daughter was a young, amateur singer then, and she had quite a few fans. As her father, I was responsible for responding to the letters of these young fans. Once, we had a letter from a child who said he had to drop out of school because he could not afford to pay a 50-yuan tuition fee. I took pity on the child, so I sent him 50 yuan.
And that turned into a sustained campaign?
One thing led to another. My daughter and I helped some students in that way and received some media coverage. Then Project Hope [which builds and funds schools in poor areas of the mainland] found me and asked me to volunteer and do research and publicity for them in Dongguan . I accepted the offer and kept meeting children who needed help. Then more people joined us.
Most of the children you sponsored are in Fenghuang county of Hunan province. How did you get connected with that area?
In 1998, a writer originally from Fenghuang gave me a list of 11 students and told me they were in need of help. He had spent a year in vain looking for people who could help, but no one would. So I claimed all 11 of them for sponsorship. I decided to visit Fenghuang myself. I went with friends, and we were astonished by the poverty there. I decided to sponsor 60 children and my friends took on 40 children.
How does this work?
Our team is based on 'one-to-one' matching, which means that each member gets connected with one pupil and sponsors him or her until the studies are completed. So far we have sponsored more than 4,000 pupils, more than half of whom have already completed their studies.
What is the cost to the volunteer?
Tuition fees are waived for pupils in primary and junior high schools, but they still have to pay about 100 yuan (HK$123) to 200 yuan in miscellaneous fees. We pay about 3 yuan each school day - approximately 800 yuan a year to primary and junior high school pupils. For senior high school pupils, we pay 2,000 yuan a year, about one-third of their tuition. If the person goes to university, we pay the first year's tuition. So, generally speaking, if we sponsor an individual from the start of elementary school until he or she goes to university, the volunteer pays about 25,000 yuan over 13 years.
But sometimes, certain children ask for more than education funds?
A member of our team once said he was very disappointed and wanted to stop donating because the child asked him to buy a bicycle. It reminded me of my own experience nine years ago. A girl I helped also asked for a bicycle so she could ride to school. I refused. But when I went to her home town for business six years ago, I found the distance between her village and the school required more than an hour's walk. I was astonished and regretted refusing her request. What the children in mountainous areas need and want most is indeed a bicycle. When she finished her studies and was working in Dongguan, I bought her a motorcycle. In 2000, I gave 13 pupils at a Fenghuang middle school each a bike. Better communication helps. If the child's family encounters more problems and needs more money, the sponsor can share the information on our website, and we will come up with a solution together.
How serious is the poverty of these children's families?
In mountainous areas, many families have little farmland because the local governments have reclaimed arable areas for forestry purposes, in order to protect the ecosystem. The families, without means of production, are trapped in poverty. Many students are orphans or have only one parent. Many have parents who are ill or disabled.
Education Minister Yuan Guiren said no children in China are forced to drop out of school because of financial difficulties.
He might have said this for the sake of publicity. As far as I know, many children in Fenghuang still do not get a free lunch provided by the government. The state's subsidy programme of 4 to 5 yuan a day is not widespread enough to benefit all the needy families, and the money is not enough. In Fenghuang alone, more than 24,000 students are waiting for financial help. We've been to Ningming county in Guangxi, Xunwu county in Jiangxi , Qingchuan and Pingwu counties in Sichuan . As far as we know, more than 100,000 students need financial help in these five counties.
How wealthy are you?
How much money should a person have to be considered rich? I don't eat a lot, and I have a home to live in. More than 90 per cent of the money I earn goes to helping children. We are living off my wife's retirement pension, and it is enough. I never manage my money well; I just donate it whenever there is a need. I used to run a renovation business, and I also have several houses I rent out.
What is it like sponsoring a child for so many years?
Deep attachments have been established between me and the children. I visit them as often as I can and write letters to each of them frequently.
How can others help?
We have a website that lists needy children on a regular basis. The website is millicharity.com. Each year, we find several hundred more pupils that need our help.