Children of quake thrive in China's improved orphanage conditions

Civic groups respond to a 1996 tragedy by opening orphanages of their own.

Yunnan's 7.0 "great earthquake" of 1996 not only destroyed lives and homes throughout this southwestern province, but also triggered fissures throughout families and society. One of the quake's lasting legacies is the thousands of orphans it created.

But in the ancient valley of Lijiang near the border of Tibet, a remarkably progressive orphanage and school is caring for hundreds of local children who lost their parents. The Lijiang Orphanage is run by the Mama Friendship Union and is jointly financed through private patrons, local civil groups, and government coffers, says Hu Manli, who heads the charity. "We're taking care of more than 400 children, with most enrolled in the boarding school we helped set up last year," says Ms. Hu.

The orphanage itself is in a traditional Chinese courtyard complex, where two dozen of the youngest children, aged 4 to 6, take pre-school lessons, play, and live.

The fluted-roof buildings double as a tourist site for admirers of traditional Chinese architecture, and visitors are given leaflets explaining the charity's background and goals.

It is completely open to the public, and stands in sharp contrast with the state-run orphanages in China that were blasted by international human rights groups just three years ago.

In January 1997, the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Asia released a report that documented widespread, system-wide abuses in Chinese government-run orphanages. The group charged that less than half the children admitted into some Chinese orphanages survived their first year, and that some institutions had set up "dying rooms" where handicapped or sickly infants were starved to death.

Changes after scathing report

Anne Thurston, a China scholar who has shuttled between the US and China for the past 20 years, says she witnessed dying rooms in orphanages she visited in the mid-1990s, but adds that "things have greatly improved since then.

"The Chinese government was very sensitive to the charges of child abuse," and the criticisms galvanized liberals in the Communist Party to step up investigations into and supervision of orphanages, she says.

Before the reforms, adoptions were handled by the Ministry of Justice, but now the less political Ministry of Civil Affairs is responsible for overseeing children's homes. The MCA "began sending investigators unannounced into orphanages" and to pump more money into the worst sites, Thurston says.

Meanwhile, the state also started allowing civic groups like the Mama Friendship Union to run smaller-scale orphanages on a trial basis. The turnaround has been astounding, say Ms Thurston and other Americans who have visited the homes.

That is part of a larger trend that has seen the government, which once aimed for cradle-to-grave control of Chinese society, begin a gradual withdrawal from people's private and social lives. "There are signs all over China that a civil society is taking root, and charity-run orphanages are part of that movement," says Thurston.

Although all the children at the Lijiang Orphanage appear to be healthy and happy, "most will probably spend their entire childhood here," says Guo Hongxia, a Mama volunteer. "Few Chinese couples will ever opt to adopt one of these children," adds Ms. Guo.

"Would-be Chinese parents are beginning to adopt more and more, but almost all of the adoptions are of blood relatives," says a US official. "Traditionally, Chinese have almost never adopted complete strangers."

Millennia-old Confucian values place the family rather than the individual at the heart of society, and infants abandoned by their parents are still social outcasts. "A child deserted by its family has no identity in China," says Thurston.

That the Lijiang children were orphaned by an earthquake could be their saving grace. "These are the children of local families struck down by an act of God, so the local community would want to take care of these kids," Thurston adds.

Confucius's traditional low valuation of females versus males and a strict two-decade-old population control policy have produced in China one of the world's highest rates of abandoned baby girls. Infants in state-run homes are overwhelmingly female, partly because many Chinese parents will try to have a boy to carry on the family name.

Nurturing boys and girls

But in the Lijiang home, "both genders are given equal chances to study and to map out their own futures," says volunteer Guo, who herself was abandoned as a baby.

The friendship union recently completed a technical school for its high school graduates, but the group is in constant need of funding, says Hu. "The schools and orphanage cost more than 1 million yuan per year (about $125,000), and the government provides only a fraction of that amount," says Guo.

The group has begun using methods pioneered by organizations like Save the Children to generate contributions. Handwritten leaflets say that would-be donors can join the friendship union for a 100-yuan contribution, and 1,000 yuan (about $125) pays for a child's living and schooling expenses for one year.

"We want to keep these kids in touch with the community and the world," says Ms. Guo. "That's their best opportunity to shape better lives for themselves and a better future for all of us."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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