To give or not to give alms to beggars, that is the question.
Beijing's Haidian District government recently issued an open letter to its citizens persuading them not to open their wallets to beggars. The letter says if residents really want to show benevolence, they can donate to charity organizations run by the government.
The district government believes that the number of beggars will dramatically decrease on the streets if people stop giving to them.
It is true that beggars on their knees do tarnish the image of clean and neat urban appearance like stains on a clean shirt.
Yet, cases vary for those pleading for others help on the streets.
My memory of beggars goes back to the 1960s when I was a child. I still remember beggars producing documents from their local governments to justify what they were doing. The document said something to the effect that flooding had devastated the homes and crops of these people, who needed to make a temporary living through people's mercy. The document also said that these beggars would return to their hometowns in the coming spring to farm their land.
I still remember what my father did: He gave hot steamed bread to old ladies sitting by the roadside, telling us that old ladies would get sick eating cold ones. Many chose to open their wallets or offer food to rural villagers, who were begging to survive even though making a living on the mercy of others might be the last thing they wanted to do.
The other side of the coin was the harsh reality of poverty at that time. Neither central nor local governments could afford to deliver enough aid to help all the victims.
In addition, flood prevention facilities such as embankments were a far cry from what we have today. As a result, beggars from flood-prone regions would come almost every year. To be more exact, whatever urban residents did to patron such "organized refugees" could be considered a form of charity on a voluntary basis.
Very few had developed any aversion to them and quite a few would chat with them, asking them about their lives in their hometowns and how their homes were affected by flooding. What they wore might look shabby with patches, but not dirty. They might look unhealthy because of lack of nutrition, but nothing from their look piqued suspicion about their motivation for seeking benevolence from others.
Compared with them, some beggars today, who pester passersby for money - some even won't let you go by putting their arms around your legs until you open your wallets - border on being scoundrels or hooligans. Behind these people there might be criminal gangs, which organize orphans or poor children from poverty-stricken rural areas to work as professional beggars.
It was reported that some who organized such beggars have made a great fortune themselves - some have become millionaires.
Because both central and local governments have done a great deal establishing social security systems of various kinds to provide financial aid for poverty-stricken families both in rural and urban areas, the motivations for begging are far more complicated than just surviving a famine or other financial straits caused by an unexpected mishap.
Even with minimum living allowance system established in all urban areas and many rural areas, it is almost impossible to eliminate the phenomenon of begging in China, and neither is it possible even in developed countries.
So I partially agree with the district government's call. I do not want to give a penny to those who pester passersby for money and neither do I want to spare any for professional beggars who are instigated or manipulated by others.
Even beggars should have manners. Those vagabonds who play the guitar or erhu (two-stringed bowed musical instruction) in plain but neat attire on the pavement exchange their music for charity. They never disrupt passersby and welcoming anyone who appreciates their music to donate a small sum of money. I will extend a helping hand to them.
And I don't think that such people tarnish the urban appearance. I would rather consider them as a social element that should be allowed some room to make a living on their own as they have the freedom to choose their way of life.
Of course, they are different from those who use people's sympathy in their favor by displaying a miserable look or with a heart-breaking story. Even they, I believe, should have manners. At least, they should never bother those who do not want to open their wallets.
Those who manipulate and train orphans or rural children from poverty-stricken areas into money-making machines for themselves must be punished as Dickensian villains. What they have done to those poor children and to those whose benevolence is abused does constitute a crime. There are reports about how these people maltreat the child beggars.
Children beggars under their manipulation will quite likely degenerate into criminals in the future and their lives will be ruined.
In addition, the existence of such beggars will dampen people's willingness to show benevolence to those really in need of help, fearing that their donations may end up in hands of those behind them.
I will never forget the scene when my daughter, then a senior in high school, put 1 yuan into a bowl before a beggar when passing through a flyover. Spring Festival was just around corner, my daughter said it was the right time for charity and beggars should also have a nice time during the traditional festival. I appreciated what she did and told her that benevolence was always a virtue.
But when she watched a TV program that exposed how some people manipulate children to pester passersby for money, she told me that she would have second thoughts before showing mercy to beggars on the roadside. That is how people's hearts become hardened and what compels them choose to turn a blind eye to those on their knees with a sign at their side explaining how desperate they were when their parents were fatally ill and they have to continue their education.
With a social security system in place to guarantee the basic living conditions of all residents in both urban and rural areas, the real beggars - those to beg for survival - have greatly decreased and will further decrease.
The district government did the right thing by persuading rather than ordering residents to avoid giving to beggars, since there are always those who are cornered into sudden financial straits. They may need others to extend a helping hand.
On the other hand, residents have the freedom to make their own decision to give or not to give.
(China Daily September 1, 2007)