Children of convicts, shunned in China, find friendly refuge

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.

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.

Slogans for success

In the main courtyard after school, kids loudly recite, "I am good, I am not bad. I will be successful!" – and other affirmative phrases suggested by "Grandmother Zhang." These cultivate confidence and a better self-image, she feels.

Zhang grew up in rural Shaanxi, the child of shopkeepers and the kind of girl who "brought home beggars so they would be fed." A marriage yielded two daughters but didn't go well; medical school was discontinued in the early 1960s. She pulled up roots and became a barefoot doctor and midwife in poor mountain areas.

Zhang remembers leaving her infant daughter on the bed of prominent villagers and going out to treat people. "The locals couldn't pay, but I would come back and someone would have put a beautiful hat or new shoes on my daughter," she says.

She was moved, and started writing about residents' struggles – the rural China of a Zhang Yimou film. Eventually, her writing got noticed. A medical journal asked her to look at local prisons. She thought they would be "dark and dank," but found them intriguing.

Prisons are where, she says, "people must focus on their fate in a way others don't.... Many inmates have a kind heart but murdered people. Prisons are special places of extremes, mother's love and cruelty mixed together, often in the same person."

She managed a prisoners' newspaper, traveled to prisons in her province, and got to know dozens of inmates, who wrote for her paper. "I started to look at prisons not only as an officer wearing a uniform, but as a mother, a woman, and a writer."

She realized very soon that in nearly every jail, the hottest topic was the children. It was an emotional subject, she says, one often unseen by prison officials. Sometimes kids would discover where parents were held, and wait for months outside, sending word. Some were locked up in parallel adolescent prisons, which tended to perpetuate criminal thinking. Inmates begged Zhang to take their kids.

She did take in a few, and gave clothes and money to others. But she saw that the children needed regular attention, "and an environment that is crime-free," she says.

Some children come to the villages as a result of parent's petitions. Others, like Xu Dong Dong was 10 months old when he arrived at Sunny Village. His father was an escaped inmate. When the boy was born, the mother fled. The father was later captured, and the police showed up with the lad.

Zhang knows that some of her charges are prone to theft or acting out, she says. "Parents' influence on the kids is strong, and crime is a shadowy thing that some kids really need to shake," she says. "If the parents are violent, cruel, or thieving, this can show up in the kids when they have experienced a warped environment. They think of begging and stealing. I don't think it is their fault. But it happens. That's why environment is important."

Zhang says that she gives one 6-year-old a small allowance when he reports daily that he hasn't stolen. "He goes to a school where the children have money," she says. "In an ordinary home, he could afford a popsicle, but here he must watch others buy, and he can't."

Is China losing a sense of family?

Zhang worries that China is losing a feeling of family. When she was a young mother, she used to hand her infant daughter through train windows before boarding. "Many hands used to reach out for our children, but I dare not try this today," she says. "Chinese traditionally have loving hearts and care, but we need to rediscover some of this now." She professes no religious faith, but says she feels gratitude for those who helped her.

She hopes her work will be noticed outside China. "All over the world there are crimes, and children are affected. The issue deserves more attention," she says. "I'm just an ordinary mother who saw a way to help."

Last week, a father came to pick up his 4-year-old in a tiny Audi. The boy stood on the car seat, his face visible just above the window, as his friends crowded the car – at first shyly, then with some jubilation as the car pulled away. The group waved and jumped. Then, the boy gone, they stood together quietly for several minutes.

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