It’s easy to take them for typical kids of their age, running and jumping in a bare compound that serves as a makeshift basketball court.
But as the minutes pass, the experience of their lives starts to show. Enthusiasm fades into listlessness. The chain smokers get fidgety, fumbling deep inside pockets for stashed cigarettes. Some pick fights for no reason, adding more bruises to already scarred bodies. Passersby dodge empty bottles and cans flung in the heat of the scuffling.
The kids, ranging in age between 10-16, are temporary residents of the Hefei Street Children Help and Protection Center, one of the dozens institutions established by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs to aid runaways.
In China, street children are defined as youngsters under the age of 18 who have left home and lived on their own for more than 24 hours without means for basic survival, and who have fallen victim to the perils of homelessness.
Street children roam almost all large cities in China. In Beijing, most such kids come from Henan Province in central China to beg for money alongside seasoned adult beggars. In Shanghai, street children are mostly from nearby Anhui Province in the east. In Guangzhou, many young girls, mainly from Hunan in the south, sell flowers.
Statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs show China has about 150,000 street children.
“Poverty is a primary cause for the street children phenomenon, which has appeared as a result of the increasing migrant population and the free transfer of labor,” said Zhang Shifeng, an official from the Department of Social Welfare and Social Affairs under the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
A study conducted last May by the Ministry of Civil Affairs on street children in Sichuan, southwest China, and Hunan in central China, shows 82.8 percent of street children helped by government-founded protection centers in Sichuan and 99.9 percent of those helped in Hunan are from underdeveloped rural areas, particularly poverty-stricken places.
“When parents move to big cities in search of fortune, they bring along their children, who more often than not are neglected and end up on the street,” Zhang said.
Other cases involve children who dropped out of school because their families could not afford tuition fees, then volunteered to earn money for the family by seeking work in the city. They are rarely successful.
Xue Lian, 13, and her younger sister Xue Yuan, 11, are from Feidong County, a 90-minute drive from Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. Six years ago, their father contracted tuberculosis. Their mother has a history of heart disease and high blood pressure. The family’s household income was only 500 yuan (about US$60) a year when the two sisters dropped out of school in 1998 and left home to start begging on the street.
“My mother didn’t want to let us go because we are too young and it’s too dangerous out there,” said Xue Lian.
They walked and begged all the way to Hefei. For six months they begged for food on the streets, sold flowers and collected empty bottles and odds and ends from piles of rubbish to trade for cash. The two girls managed to save over 200 yuan (US$24) to give to their father for his medical expenses, which came to tens of thousands of yuan.
Eventually local police took them to the Hefei children’s assistance center, which returned them to their parents. Later, when the girls wrote to the center asking for help to get into school, center officials reached an agreement with their hometown’s township government and local primary school to get the sisters into class.
While some kids are forced on to the street by poverty, many others are driven away by dysfunctional families.
Zhang Saiya, now 14, was a happy toddler until her mother died when she was three.
“My pregnant mother drank poison when my gambling father offered her as a bet,” she said flatly. Soon after her mother’s suicide, her father married an “ugly” woman. Zhang said both of them mistreated her.
Her only confidante was her grandmother, who died last year. Zhang and her elder sister ran away from home in Feixi County to the west of Hefei when they could no longer stand their stepmother’s tirades against them.
They went to Hefei but were separated and lost contact. Zhang Saiya spent about a year on the street, sleeping under bridges and later renting a house with four other girls and an adult male.
Zhang Saiya was more than happy to be sent to the center. “I don’t have to beg and I can read here,” she said.
Fourteen-year-old Chen Weijie, from Maoming in Guangdong Province in South China cannot straighten his left arm, which juts out from his side in an awkward L-shape. He explains that his drug-addicted father twisted it when Chen, just six, refused to steal money to pay for his drug expenses.
Finally, the young Chen could no longer stand his father’s violence and boarded a train in search of his mother, who had long since left her husband. He wound up on the streets of Hefei and other cities in Anhui, selling empty bottles he collected.
“If I can save more than 200 yuan (US$24), I will buy a bicycle and carry more empty bottles to sell,” he said, his eyes wide with the dream.
Chen has been at the center off and on for about a year. “I will never go back to see my father,” he vowed.
Wu Renxiu, a psychology professor at Anhui Medical University, said: “Improper behavior on the part of the parents, such as gambling, drug-addiction and child-beating, hurts kids psychologically, especially those who are introverted and lack age-appropriate social skills.”
What’s more, Wu said, the longer a child stays on the street, the more negative influences he or she will absorb and the more difficult his or her recovery will be.
Du Zhongyang, 13, from Guizhou in southwest China, should be in the fourth grade. His mother died of illness over a year ago. Du ran away from home when his father tried to beat him with a club for burning a pot of rice. The quick-thinking Du borrowed 50 yuan (US$6) from an aunt, bought a map and got on a train, which took him to Hunan, Hubei and finally to Anhui.
Du said he was once asked by older boys, about 17 or 18, to stand as lookout while they stole TVs, copper, aluminium alloy and even dynamite from freight trains. He refused.
“Street children are very vulnerable, not only because their basic rights to education - and even to life - are easily violated, but also because they can be manipulated by criminal groups and turned into juvenile delinquents,” pointed out Zhang Shifeng.
The growing number of street children has prompted action from both the Chinese government and international non-governmental organizations.
Since the mid-1990s, the central government has earmarked nearly 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) raised from social welfare funds to build centers for street children across the country, added to the 100 million yuan (US$12 million) contributed by local governments.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has also assisted centers in Harbin, Changsha, Hefei, Shanghai, Haikou and Kunming financially and by donating cars, TV sets, and teaching equipment.
To date, there are more than 70 centers for street kids in China, and the number will rise to 100 by the end of this year, in addition to the 100-plus locally funded institutions for runaway youths.
The centers are strictly social welfare institutions aimed at helping and protecting children, pointed out Zhang Shifeng.
Free meals, accommodation, health check-ups and temporary education are provided. In addition, the centers are required to find the families of the street children and send them back.
“After all, home is the best place for a child to grow up,” said Zhang Shifeng.
But he still worries about the future of those children who return to problem families, such as those with drug-addicted, alcoholic parents.
“In these cases, the parents should be deprived of their guardianship of the children,” he suggested, but added that Chinese law doesn’t provide for the transfer of guardianship.
“We need help and we need funding,” he said with a sigh. “This is a gigantic project.”
Follow-up visits to the children’s families are also necessary to ensure they will not return to the street.
The Hefei Street Children Help and Protection Center is one of the first of its kind in China. Founded in 1996, it has taken in 1,087 street children who on average stay for one week to 10 days.
“Once they are in, we change their clothes, cut their fingernails, and let them take a shower. Those who are ill can get simple medical treatment in our own clinic,” said Tao Renqing, the director of the center.
Since it opened, the center has held 10 training courses for street children. More than 500 children took part. The courses, lasting from 30 to 45 days, include literacy lessons, general information on law and self-protection, moral education, life skills, and discussion groups to get the youngsters talking about their homes and families.
“We offer specific programs targeted to address the problems of street children,” said Tao, adding that the parents of some street children are also taking classes at the center.
Chen Gong, one of the employees at the center and a graduate of the China Institute of Civil Affairs, said: “Children don’t tell us the truth until three or four days after they are taken here when they know we really care for them.
“The key to their heart is to treat them like they are your own with no discrimination whatsoever.”
Although the shy and scared children do not want to leave after their allotted time is up, others who have grown accustomed to the independence of street life tend to complain about the restrictions in the center.
“It’s so dull, they won’t even let us smoke,” complained one newcomer, who proudly recalled smoking three packs of cigarettes in one day.
Tao said the hardest part of the job is “to send the kids back home and get them reintegrated into their communities and ordinary lives.”
He can cite a number of cases in which former street children who left home in a fit of anger returned home and did well. But he doesn’t know what happened to many others who fled their homes because of family problems. Although they never reappeared at the Hefei center, they might have left home again and turned up in other centers.
“We hope through our talks with parents and local governments, those parents will change their bad behavior or unhealthy attitude towards their kids and behave themselves,” he said.
The center is forming a community action network to prevent more children going onto the streets, and to ensure the reintegration of former street kids.
Nationwide, the Ministry of Civil Affairs is blueprinting a national network for individual help centers across the country to exchange information on street children and ways to guarantee a more stable life for them when they go back home.
(China Daily 10/23/2000)