When Zhang Zhen's mother died in front of his eyes in her early 50s, his sorrow was heart-wrenching.
"I cried out 'mum' as I was going mad, but it was too late," Zhang, 16, said as he recalled the moment he clutched his mother's dead body to his chest in hospital. She had died of a brain hemorrhage.
When his sick father then went into deep debt to keep the talented and clever boy at school, it placed the family's future in jeopardy and Zhen's options looked bleak. The family, in the poverty-stricken Xianxian County of north China's Hebei Province, was on the verge of breakdown.
His family had only one parent, huge debts and they were poor: the gods had indeed been unkind to Zhang Zhen.
However the situation was transformed, as if by a gift from above.
But for a fund of 300,000 yuan (40,000 U.S. dollars), Zhang and his other 49 poor but diligent classmates wouldn't have had the chance to go on to high school, the last education period to be covered by the country's efforts to fight poverty and its consequences.
Last stop for study funding
While the nation is making its best efforts to support poor students in primary schools and colleges, high school, the non-compulsory three-year education period following elementary and junior high school, remains a Cinderella area when it comes to funding.
"It's a long, hard way to sponsor impoverished students, and the government has its own limitations," said Chen Hongtao, the director of the ground-breaking Zi Qiang Project who works at the China Foundation For Poverty Alleviation (CFPA). He said that it took the country eight years to see the efforts of funding students in colleges, the next step in the education process after high school.
In 1999 the government set up a national scheme to provide subsidized loans for college students. This was the first time that a scheme had been implemented to help these students. However, a missing link in funding was now exposed - high school students got no help from the government.
The government has made more efforts in funding students in vocational high schools since it's easier and faster for them to find a job after graduation and to live independently, said Chen. "Now it's the turn for high school students."
According to a CFPA survey on high school students in impoverished areas in eight provinces, including Anhui, Guizhou and Qinghai, 15 percent of some 600 respondents are living in poverty and 7 percent are in absolute poverty.
The survey said 44 percent of the high school students who took part in the survey have less than 100 yuan to live on each month. Only 28 percent of the children think their family can fully cover their study and living expenses. The mountain these poor people have to climb seems insurmountable.
Launched by the government 18 years ago, Project Hope has helped more than 3.04 million out-of-school children to finish primary school across the country, and the State Council said in a circular earlier that every year more than 50 billion yuan will be spent in subsidy on some 4 million college students and 16 million vocational school students.
However, in primary and middle schools, the government's project to sponsor high school students, known as "Hong Zhi", or 'grand will', has had mixed success since its introduction in 2002. In Liaoning Province, in northeast China, 16,000 students since 2004 have benefited from the Hong Zhi Project. There are no official figures available for Hong Zhi students nationally.
Before being sponsored, Zhang Qiutian thought junior high school was the end of her education.
"My daughter loves to study. She often falls asleep with a book in hand late at night," her 48-year-old stepfather said, adding, "I didn't have the heart to make her drop out."
The recent efforts to support high school students, as part of the CFPA's New Great Wall Project (which was first launched to sponsor college students and is now sponsoring high school students as well), will focus on 592 impoverished counties across the country.
Every year, an average of 50 to 60 outstanding students will be selected based on their exam results to form a class in a nearby school with a yearly fund of 1,800 yuan per capita, said the foundation.
According to the CFPA, the project aims to fund 300 classes in the coming three years. However, the details, including the number of classes in each county and the money raised so far, are not revealed as they are subject to the donors' discretion and the exam results of the students.
"This 50-student class in the No.1 Xianxian County High School is the first step in this nationwide project," said Chen, director of the project.
The project plans to arrange informal discussion between students and donors, and also to allow college students and their mentors to share experiences and feelings.
"What they need is empathy, not sympathy. We don't want them to cry; we want them to be strong and hardworking," said Zhao Yang, who's in charge of fund distribution. "That's why we name the class 'Zi Qiang', which means they should learn to be strong by themselves."
A class named "Zi Qiang"
With right fists firmly held up in the air, all but one classmate swore out loud, "the love of society; the origin of civilization; we will pass them on until the end of time!"
Gao Jia, 17, the only student who was late for the class foundation ceremony as he was not told in time, tiptoed into the classroom and sat upright in the corner. The worn-out military green shirt loosely hung over his small bones.
"Every month I ask my parents for only 50 yuan. To make them believe it's enough, I had to save some ten yuan to show off," said Gao, grinning at his little trick.
The boy vowed to save money by carefully budgeting for what he ate each day: four loaves of steamed bread and porridge, which in total cost barely more than one yuan.
He also made money by collecting and selling garbage with his brother in the holidays. "At first we did it around the village, but it's so embarrassing when friends found me, so we went to places further afield."
Chen Guolun, an experienced 44-year-old teacher has been selected to take charge of the class. He has been to nine far-off families to get a clear idea of the children's conditions.
"They are good kids. I will try my best to promote understanding between them and other students and teachers in the school," Chen said.
Meanwhile, Wu Ying, the donor who helped the foundation fulfill the class debut said, "I'll keep on funding more students in the coming years.
He has been sending 20,000 yuan monthly to the foundation for a year and this time it was a total of 300,000 yuan to support this special class.
"I have nothing else to say to you. Just remember, when you're strong and talented, be sure to help others in need," said Wu, a 34-year-old businessman in the city of Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province.
(Xinhua News Agency November 22, 2007)