Children of convicts, shunned in China, find friendly refuge
BAN QIAO VILLAGE, CHINA
If you are going to gather a set of outcast children in China, provide them decent food, a sense of family, and moments to laugh – all with zero official support – you'd better be plenty tough.Skip to next paragraph
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But for Zhang Shuqin, being tough, or simply smart, isn't enough. A commitment to her children requires something special: A steady fight for their innocence in the face of crime and punishment.
Ms. Zhang's 250 kids live in four "villages" in north China that she started. The children exist in a little regarded category: The offspring of convicted criminals still behind bars. Five-year-old Ade Li Jiang, who proudly wears a backpack that dwarfs him, has both parents in jail for drug dealing. Relatives don't want him. Xiao Qin and Xiao Yan, sisters who seem to delight in their small corn-planting project, arrived here after their mother killed their father.
In almost any society, Zhang argues, such children might carry a social taint. In Asia, family background is important – and China, where families were once executed along with a criminal parent, is no exception. The kids live in a netherworld – not quite orphans, not quite street children, and not technically adoptable.
"Because of what the parents did, there is a strong feeling to repel these children," says Zhang, whose decade of original work got her listed last year as one of 108 women Nobel Prize candidates. "There's a bit of condemnation of them, as if they are not good, not worth proper love.
"If I hadn't worked in a prison, I would never have seen this," she continues. "I would have had no good feeling for these children, no regard. But I now feel they should come out of the shadows that want to attach to them, and into the light."
Started by Zhang in Shaanxi Province, the villages are China's first NGO. The Beijing branch, where about half of her charges live, is known as "Sunny Village." They are the only place in China for prisoner's children, and operate off a network of donors and gifts, mostly from foreigners and Hong Kong residents.
China still has a nascent NGO community. The push for commercial success in China is so all-consuming that even some leaders here feel it is strangling the old social contract to take care of each other. Some 280,000 children are affected by the incarceration of a parent, according to a People's University estimate.
For Zhang, this enterprise is not simply about the children; she wants to help incarcerated parents as well. Her motivation was the bond she saw between prisoner parents and offspring, and the deep longing and worry by inmates for their children.
"The prisoners have often destroyed not only the lives of others, but the lives of their own families. They don't recognize this at the time," Zhang says. "But later, many of them can't think of anything else. They worry about losing the children forever, about whether their kids are being cared for or mistreated. It is hard especially for mothers."
Zhang's village consists of colorfully painted cottages – 14 children in each, two older kids as monitors – bordered by rows of cabbage and carrots. Each has calligraphy on the wall that no one "may hurt Sunny Village or its people;" in one boys' cottage, it's hung below posters of NBA star Tracy McGrady. A plaque outside one house recognizes aid from a German mothers' association; another thanks an overseas Rotary club.
Those over age 5 attend public schools. Everyone tends a 200-acre plot of "pear-dates" – a financial supplement – and last week, onions were planted between the trees. Children clean, and those over age 10 wash their own clothes. Dinners are a modest but cheerful time of potatoes, vegetables, soup, fruit, and sometimes meat, though not last week. Budgets are tight.
A constant battle is waged, particularly as kids get older, against invisible prejudices. Chairman Mao taught that, "The son of a hero is a hero, the son of a bad egg is a bad egg," and during the Cultural Revolution, this turned into a war against "undesirables": Children were divided as good sheep or 'red babies' and bad goats or 'black babies." Those days are over, but a deep stigma remains.