SHANGHAI — ASK Xu Yacheng about his home, and he shrugs and slips into silence.
A wisp of a boy with a green jacket and haunted, downcast eyes, 10-year-old Yacheng whispers that he left his parents, sister, and brother in Yunnan Province three years ago and rode the train to Shanghai because he ``just wanted to come here.'' Along the way, he begged for food and was beaten and abused. Unable to read or write, the boy denies knowing his real name or his home town.
``We can't get anything out of him,'' says Chen Yunfeng, a counselor at the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute where the boy - whom institute officials named Yacheng - was sent by police who found him living in the railroad station.
``We keep asking for his exact address, but he can't tell us,'' says Mr. Chen. ``If we knew his address, we would send him back.''
As economic reforms pry open Chinese society and strain the fabric of family life, a growing corps of homeless and runaway children roams the streets of China's major cities - a problem unheard of just a decade ago. Children as young as four years old are fleeing problems at home and poverty in the countryside and joining the rural exodus to urban centers, Chinese researchers say.
A 1992 survey of 10,000 children in the city of Shanghai and in the Hunan, Anhui, and Guangdong Provinces, sponsored by the Chinese Civil Affairs Ministry and UNICEF, estimates there are 200,000 homeless children in these areas. Researchers call this estimate conservative.
That number is only a fraction of the 300 million Chinese under the age of 18 and pales in comparison to armies of waifs in other Asian cities, Chinese officials say.
Still, Chinese analysts contend that the ranks of homeless children are burgeoning amid an unprecedented migratory wave of millions of jobless rural laborers seeking work in cities along China's fast-growing eastern sea-board.
Officials worry that thousands of young runaways are turning to crime and fueling juvenile delinquency, which has more than doubled in the last decade, according to the New China News Agency.
``Compared with other countries, China's problem is not yet that serious,'' says Tao Zhiliang, a Shanghai civil-affairs official who helped conduct the UNICEF study. ``But the crime rate for juvenile delinquents is on the rise with the socialist market economy. If we don't treat this seriously, the homeless children will join the ranks of juvenile delinquents.''
Many runaways left home because of natural disasters, mistreatment, or just for fun. ``Some just went out for play. This is related to a more open society,'' says Wang Jiachun of the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute. ``In the past, remote areas were not open. But with the broadcast media, children can learn more about the big cities.''
The main impetus driving children to run away is turmoil within families, often broken by divorce, experts say.
Divorce, previously frowned upon and discouraged, is on the increase for the first time in China and is spreading from urban areas to the countryside, social observers say. According to the Civil Affairs Ministry, 909,000 Chinese couples were divorced in 1993, a nearly 300 percent increase from 1990.
``Compared with Western countries, one can still say that the family fabric in China is stable as a whole,'' says Mr. Tao, the researcher. ``In the past, people looked down on divorce. Even though there was no mutual feeling between husband and wife, they would still keep the family together.
``Now, because of the increase in the divorce rate, there are more broken families and disadvantaged children,'' he continues. ``This has given rise to social problems due to inadequate care of the children in a divorce.''
The problem of child runaways is particularly acute in Shanghai, a booming port city of 11 million people which is at the forefront of China's monumental economic and social shifts. According to the Wenhui Daily newspaper, Shanghai has absorbed 2.5 million migrants in recent years, 40 percent of whom lack legal rights of residence.
The income gap between rich and poor is at its most stark in Shanghai, where millionaires live not far from those who subsist on $30 a month, according to official Chinese press reports. Divorce has increased tenfold in the last decade. And every year, Shanghai authorities detain and send more than 3,000 homeless children to their families.
For Xu Guokung, a slight child of about 8 or 9 years living at the welfare institute in Shanghai, home is somewhere in Anhui Province, he says.
One day, while playing outside, he says he was lured onto a train by someone who abused him and left him in Shanghai. Before being caught by police, he stayed in the air-conditioned waiting rooms at the city's train station where he begged leftover food from passengers.
Guokung, a name given him at the Shanghai home, says he misses his parents in Anhui although food is often scarce there and his family's house frequently floods. He recalled a time when ``the water came in our house, and we watched all our things float away on the water. We had to run away.''
Shanghai is building a new detention center for homeless children who cannot be sent home. Although some live at the welfare institute along with orphans and abandoned children with handicaps, most are kept in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Shanghai which authorities would not allow journalists to visit.
Social experts say the key to preventing more runaways is educating not just the children, but also their parents.
``Efforts have to be taken to make parents more cultured and educated so they will have a greater sense of responsibility toward the children,'' says Tao. ``Schools should be held responsible for preventing the kids from running away. But mainly it is up to the parents to educate and make the child stay at home.''