The Pauper Towns of China: Kaili and Minxian
In the recent microblog-powered campaign to liberate abducted child paupers, many of those detained by the police were found to have come from two places: Kaili (Guizhou province) and Minxian (Gansu province). Here are older investigative reports about these two pauper towns.
(Xinbao) The paradox of the pauper village in Minxian county (Gansu province): Pauperism Is The Short Cut To Becoming Wealthy. July 28, 2005.
Xiaozhai town, Minxian county, Gansu province is a famous "pauper town" in China because many of its residents have gone out to beg. What causes this phenomenon? Why do these people choose to go down a path that most people would despise? What are their lives behind their begging activities? Recently our reporter went to Xiaozhai town to investigate ...
Li Wenyi is coming home after having been gone for almost four months.
This is his second time home this year. The last time was in March. Last time, he came back to sow the seeds. This time, he was sent home by the Shenyang Rescue Station. Thirteen persons (eight adults and five children) were sent back including him. All were Xiaozhai residents. They were found by the Shenyang Rescue Station and sent back. The group also included the child Duozi that Li Wenyi rented.
Our reporter met Li Wenyi at the Red Cross in Meichuan town, Minxian county. This is on the only road that leads to Hulong village, Xiaozhai town where his home is located ... "I haven't seen them for a while. I miss them, especially my two daughters. I bought them some snacks. You can't buy this stuff where we live even if you want to." Li Wenyi said.
... The van took Li Wenyi and Duozi to Jiuzhai village. The two got out, took their luggage out and prepared to walk. Li Wenyi had a grey leather case, a canvas bag and a black backpack. According to him, all he had were blankets, old clothes and some Shenyang local produce. "Our village is 15 miles away. Cars cannot reach here. We always go by foot."
When we got to the foot of the hill, Li Wenyi met a fellow villager. The man said hello and asked: "Back from begging?" "Yes. When did you get back?" "More than a month ago." Li Wenyi told our reporter that this man had been begging in Chengdu for five or six years.
"How did things go this time?" Our reporter asked Li Wenyi about his "job" situation.
After hesitating, Li Wenyi said: "(Sigh) It was lousy this time. I only made 3,000 yuan or so."
"This is not bad. When do you intend to go back?"
"I can't say for now. They are very strict everywhere. I won't dare go back to Shenyang. I will find some place after I harvest the wheat."
"Your wife and kids?"
"They are home. They just came back last month."
It took almost two hours of walking carrying the luggage on a mountain path before Li Wenyi saw his home that was halfway up the mountain.
His wife was tending to the cow. When she heard the news, she put down her whip and looked at the direction from whence her husband was coming. The daughters were happy. They raced down the mountain and threw themselves into his arms. Their four blackened hands fought to take the bags in their dad's hands. They didn't forget to say hello to Elder Brother Duozi. Li Wenyi was also ecstatic at seeing his daughters. He picked up his son, padded the heads of his daughters gently and went home. He said hello to his parent-in-laws and walked in.
But somehow Li Wenyi was not happy about coming to this home that he hadn't been to for four months. Instead he felt a sense of loss ...
Upon entering the home of Li Wenyi, the reporter was met by the thick smell of cow dung. The family cow stayed in the family courtyard. Cows are as important to people here as buses are to city dwellers. There is a local saying: "Farmers without cows are like lamps without oil." This showed the importance of cows. This village does not have a single tractor.
The home of Li Wenyi consists of three bungalows made of yellow earth. The courtyard walls were built with rocks picked up from the hills. They are so low that even a child can climb over it. The three rooms facing the north have no windows because there is no money to buy wood. They are used to store food and fodder.
Li Wenyi's father-in-law invited the reporter to sit on the brick bed. The blanket was filthy, torn and greasy. It did not even reach to the side of the brick bed. Li Wenyi brought over a small stove. This is an essential item for villagers to make tea. Since they could not afford to buy coal and there is little firewood around in winter, cow dung was used as fuel. Thus the cows serve an additional purpose by "producing fuel." The stove is used year round. In the winter, the family sits on the heated brick bed and warm themselves around the stove. Basically they don't go out, but it was still unbearably cold.
At around 7pm, dinner was ready. Dinner was vegetable noodle soup. It consisted of some noodles, potato strips and white cabbage. The only condiment was salt. There were three small bowls on the dining table, containing salt, hot sauce and preserved vegetables. The wife of Li Wenyi told our reporter that only half of the villagers can afford to eat preserved vegetables or use hot sauce. Most of them only have salt. Apart from Chinese New Year Day, nobody eats meat.
Night came slowly. The house was so dark that only vague shadows can be discerned. Li Wenyi lit the oil lamp which only illuminated the brick bed. There is no electricity in the village. Therefore oil lamps were the only source of light. Since there is no electricity, the families don't have any consumer electronics. Apart from those who are out begging, the villagers have never watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. They don't know who Zhao Benshan is, they don't know who Huang Hong is ... According to information, five of the communes in Hulong village do not have electricity. More than 1,000 persons still live in the dark. The other five communes were introduced to electricity December last year.
"We lead a primitive life here." Li Wenyi's father told the truth about the local conditions. In many subsequent interviews, the term "primitive life" appeared frequently even though they are already far removed from the lives of most people.
Primitive life is usually represented in traveling. Many people who have walked up this path would feel the same way. The poet Li Po said that the Sichuan roads were as tough as going up the sky, and that is about right. The winding path is the only way to reach the village. The road is narrow, being two meters at the widest. It is very steep. Therefore the only way to get to the village is by foot. The people here are used to walking Thirty miles of mountain path is nothing to them. Nobody in this village of more than thirty homes owns a car. There are two motorcycles. Due to the difficult road conditions, brand new motorcycles get worn out within two years.
"You cannot imagine this unless you see it with your own eyes. This is how harsh our lives are. If we don't get out to beg, we can't survive." These words of Li Wenyi convey the thoughts of all the beggars of Minxian.
Bao Zhiqing is 52 years old. He is a member of Commune Number One in Hulong village. He is a 6-year veteran beggar. Last month he returned from begging in Shenyang. After deducting train fare and expenses, he took home 700 yuan. "This is basically enough to pay for the grandson's tuition and family expenses. I will go out again after harvest." Bao Zhiqin said.
There are plenty of people in the ten communes of Hulong village who go outside to beg like Bao Zhiqing. There are more than 300 households and 1,500 persons in those ten communes. The preliminary estimate is that more than 2/3 of them have gone outside to beg. At this moment almost 300 persons (mostly children and elderly persons because they draw donations easier) are still begging outside. The situation is similar in the neighboring Xiaozhai village where 1/5 of the 1,500 villagers are outside begging, mainly in Shenyang, Chengdu, Guangzhou and other cities.
Our reporter was told repeatedly during the interviews in Hulong village and Xiaozhai village: Just pay attention to the facilities inside the houses and you can tell who has gone out begging. Our reporter interviewed some households on this basis and the results partially confirmed this assertion.
At the home of senior citizen Bao Zhenghuai in Xiaozhai village, the presence of a 21-inch color television on a broken table was particularly attention-drawing. It was completely incongruous with the other facilities. The old man told our reporter that his son is usually begging outside and has not come home for three years. This year, the son sent money back from Chengdu to his father to buy the television set. It cost more than 1,000 yuan. "If my son hadn't earned some money, I may never have watched television in my lifetime." The old man told our reporter.
Compared to those families which have people begging outside, those families without are much worse. The family of Li Zhengjun in the Number Two Commune of Hulong village is an example. He is the only labor force in the family. Therefore he cannot go out. He ends up working the three mu of mountainous land. The three earthern buildings are near collapse. Apart from one table, the home has no other furniture.
It is objectively true that families of beggars are wealthier, even though it is possible that they may have other means of gaining wealth. To a certain degree, going out to beg is the major and easiest way to escape poverty in this area.
While their peers elsewhere are absorbing knowledge and enjoying the happiness of childhood, the children here are trying to make a living while giving up their dignity. They spend their childhoods in the streets until they reach adulthood. They are the so-called "child beggars."
In the army of beggars from Minxian county, the child beggars are an important component. They receive extra attention from the outside. Along with elderly persons and physically handicapped persons, they form the main body of the army of beggars.
Bao Xiaoming is a second year student at the Hulong Elementary School. He lives in Number One Commune, Hulong village. At nine years old, he has five years of experience in begging. When he was four years old, he began to beg outside alongside his mother. He has been to cities such as Zhengzhou, Chengdu, Shenyang. Fortunately, he did not have to continue to beg like other children. He began to attend school when he was seven years old. Every summer and winter holiday, he has to go out begging. When asked why he has to go out begging, Xiao Bao used the local Minxian dialect mixed with putonghua to reply: "Our family is poor." He said that he will be going out to beg with his mother during the upcoming summer vacation.
The aforementioned Duozi was not as fortunate. He has not been in school for even one day of his life. He does not have any elementary school classmates. As far as he can remember, he has been out begging with his parents. He spent the best times of his life drifting in the streets of various cities, tasting the sweetness and bitterness of life. At fifteen now, he is still drifting around. He does not know when he will ever enjoy the smell of books or hold a pencil in hand.
Concerning the child beggars, there is a saying: More than 90% of the children of Xiaozhai town, especially those between five to ten years old, have gone out to beg, including those who are still in school as well as those who have dropped out of school. This saying was confirmed by Hulong Elementary School principal Li Yuzhang who has been teaching there for 11 years. Principal Li told our reporter that there are 290 students at the elementary school now. This is about 90% of all children of school age, which means that 10% of the children are not attending school and that does not include the drop-outs. The drop-out rate is also high, sometimes as much as 5%. Things were better the past two years, with about 3% drop out rates. Each semester, one or two students do not show up, mainly among first to third year students (that is, between ages 7 to 10). By comparison, the drop out rates for fourth and fifth year students are lower because older students find it harder to beg.
Another characteristic about child beggars are their begging sorties are timed mainly around the summer and winter holidays. 60% of the students will go out with their parents or others to beg during these two holiday periods. Because of this reason, the van from Meichuan to Xiaozhai is particularly crowded during these periods. Basically the passengers are the children and their parents. On July 15, our reporter took the bus towards the Longxi train station. At Zhang county, 15 persons got on -- five adults and ten children. The five adults carried various bags while the older children carried smaller bags. In chatting with a boy named Tang Hui, the reporter learned that the holidays had just begun two days ago and he is traveling with his mother and young sister to Chengdu. When asked whether he had gone out before, Tang Hui said shyly that this was his third time.
The situation at Xiaozhai Elementary School is similar, if not even worse. According to Teacher Bai at the Xiaozhai Town School, there are more than 320 students there. Most of them have experience with begging, including some who have done it for five or six years. The statistics show that 23 students out of more than 1,800 in 2003-2004 dropped out. The statistic for this year is about the same.
"We try everything possible to keep the children in school and reduce the drop out rate. But the results are unsatisfactory." Hulong Elementary School principal Li said helplessly. In order to persuade students not to go out to beg, the school organizes education at the end of each semester. The school issues a letter to each student and to the parents. On July 12, our reporter saw the letter to the students: "Dear young friends, you are at a critical juncture of your lives. You should take this time to study hard. This will be useful no matter what you end up doing in the future. But many students are lagging in their studies because they go begging. Some even drop out of school. This is so unfortunate ... we know that when a large number of beggars flow around the country, it will disrupt public order and smear the reputation of our county. This is contrary to patriotism ... if your parents insist that you go out to beg, you tell them that you are protected under the <Law to protect minors> and the <Law to provide free education>. They are your strong defenses. If necessary, you can invoke the law to protect yourselves ..." Although the letter was sent out, the results were not good. The students continued to go out begging. Principal Li said helplessly.
"There are more drawbacks than benefits for the children to go out to beg. There are many bad effects." Principal Li thinks that there are two principal drawbacks. Firstly, the students lose their interest in studies. An excellent student returns home not wanting to study anymore. They lose their desire to study and their will to better themselves. Some of them may be thinking: Learning is even harder than begging because it restricts one's freedom. This sets up a huge barrier for education work. Next, the students are exposed to the worse aspects of life because they stepped into society too early. At a time when they haven't yet received formal education, this is bad for their maturation.
During the interviews with parents, our reporter heard parents say: It is better to sent the children out to beg than let them stay at home, because they get to see the world and open their eyes. Otherwise if the children stay home, they will never leave the mountains because the family circumstances won't allow them to. Some people even think that it is better to let the children experience life early on and learn how to deal with the humiliation in order to adapt better ... It is this kind of thinking that led to one generation after another of children to follow the "road of no return" just like their parents and even their ancestors.
Of course, there are other reasons why beggars come into being. Minxian County Cultural and Sports Department's inspector Qiu Weijin told us that the main reason is still poverty. "Parents are humans. What kind of parents really wants their own children to beg?" At the same time, it is also very hard for children to attend school. In Hulong village, the children walk more than 20 miles of mountain path to go to school. They spend 3 hours on the road each day
. They don't go home for lunch. Lunch is either steam buns brought from home munched down with cold water or boiled potatoes. In the winter, the boiled potatoes turn into ice cubes. Also the children risk running into natural disasters such as mud slides and flash floods on their way. For that reason, parents prefer to taken their children to "tour" China.
It is comforting to know that the local education department realized that the situation is serious. They have taken a series of actions of remedy and prevention. With respect to Xiaozhai town, the Minxian county education department has waived all tuition fees and book costs. This solves the most troublesome part of the parents' problems. Also the town education district has set up the drop-out rate as an important indicator for assessing school performance. This means that the teachers will work on the students and parents to keep the students in school.
"Our ultimate goal is to make all the children stay in school. We won't let any child go into the cities to beg. We want them to leave properly on their own to go into the cities!" Inspector Qiu Weijin said.
Our reporter wanted to ask: "How much time will that take?"
For most people, "renting" refers to renting objects, cars, houses, books, etc. They will most likely not have heard of "renting people." But recently our reporter found that renting children has become very trendy in the beggar villages.
Dong Kejun went home this time mainly to rent a small child to assist him in his work, even though his four-year-old son was still begging alongside his wife in Shenyang. "It is relatively easier for small children to beg for money. My son is too small. I want to rent a child who is somewhat older. I will pay for his room and board in addition to paying 300 yuan per month to his family." Dong Kejun explained the principles of child renting.
Actually there are many other beggars who think like Dong Kejun. Many of these have actually done it. Li Wenyi is one of those. Li Wenyi is known as "Boss Li." The reason is that he has an employee named Duozi. This was the person who came home with him. Li Wenyi rented Duozi in April this year. Duozi is a distant relative of one of the people who begged alongside Li Wenyi. The deal was made through the introduction of this acquaintance. Duozi has worked for Li Wenyi for three months already. According to the pre-arranged agreement, Duozi received 900 yuan in wages paid in two installments to Duozi's parents. At the same time, Duozi got other "goodies" -- two sets of clothing that Li Wenyi bought from a used clothing market for 20 yuan -- even though they are too big and one pair of trousers is for ladies. But Li Wenyi said that "this was a lot better for Duozi than three months ago." Also Duozi has grown a lot stouter because "he could eat meat and fruit every day and therefore got better nutrition." But Li Wenyi got far more return-on-investment than his cost. In economic terminology, this was "super-normal profit." Before Duozi began work, Li Wenyi set a goal for him: 90 yuan per day, with 50 yuan in the morning, 30 yuan in the afternoon and 10 yuan in the evening. This is a strict requirement that must be accomplished under the threat of punishment (such as whipping, food deprivation, etc). Duozi is very smart and knows how to beg. He could not accomplish the mission the first few days and Li Wenyi "educated" him with his stick. Nowadays he is experienced and can basically accomplish the mission, sometimes even surpassing the quota.
Nowadays Boss Li does not even have to work in the front lines anymore. His principal duty is to direct activities from behind the scene. Sometimes he supervises Duozi's work. Duozi worked mainly at the Western Tower and Northern Station in Shenyang. There is more pedestrian and vehicular traffic there and therefore business is better. When a car stops or a wealthy person comes by, Duozi will race over and kneel down. He may use his rag to polish the car. He often wins sympathy from people who give him one yuan or something. The morning passes by quickly. He eats lunch that Li Wenyi brought for him. It is usually steamed buns, but there is a persimmon fruit too. The work in the afternoon is the same. Duozi returns "home" at 6pm or so. Dinner is either vegetable noodle soup or potato strip congee. These are typical local dishes, with some ground meat added occasionally. After dinner, Duozi goes out again. But the night quota is low at 10 yuan. Duozi is usually back as it gets dark. They stay at a place with eight persons sharing 15 square meters of space. Li Wenyi takes out his abacus to count the daily earnings and see if Duozi reaches his quota. If so, Duozi can sleep. Tomorrow his mission will be to make 90 yuan again.
Duozi was sent back by the local Shenyang rescue station several days ago. As his guardian, Li Wenyi came back with him. But Duozi said that he wants to go back with "Uncle Li" to Shenyang after the wheat harvest. Li Wenyi has the same idea as well.
Actually Li Wenyi can only be said to be a 'small boss' compared to Yang Jiuzhen in the same village. Yang has two children of her own. At the maximum, she has five children working for her at 300 yuan per month each. According to information, Yang Jiuzhen has been renting children for more than two years already.
10-year-old girl Xu Aihong just returned from Shenyang in March. Last September she and Dong Guozheng from the same village went out to earn 2,250 yuan in "wages." The little girl wears a pony-tail, her cheeks are bright red and she seemed very smart. The reporter spoke with her briefly.
"Why did you go out?" "My mother wants me to."
"Did that man beat you?" "Yes."
"What does he beat you with? Did it hurt?" "Leather belt, leather shoes. It hurts."
"Why did he beat you?" "Because I did not beg enough money."
"Have you ever attended school?" "No."
"Why not?" "My family is too poor."
"Do you want to go to school?" "I want to go to school."
"Is Shenyang better than here?" "It is better here."
"Oh, we really have no choice. Why else would we put our child through this suffering. This is no different from selling my children off." Xu Aihong's mother broke out in tears. There was more regret and helplessness than sorrow in her sobbing.
"I know that my daughter suffered a lot outside, she endured a lot of beating. But I can only swallow my bitterness. There is no other choice. I have let my daughter down forever ..." At this point, she could no longer speak due to the sobbing.
During the interviews, our reporter made contacted with the people who rent children and came to the following conclusions: Firstly, they choose to rent children because children win sympathy easier and make more money than just farming. Secondly, they rent children of a certain age (usually between 8 to 15), neither too old nor too young. Finally, the characteristics of the families which rent out their children have one common point: Extreme poverty. One family was actually squeezed onto one brick bed with a straw mat. Their only blanket was just a pile of cotton balls. It was unimaginable.
"Renting children is a trend among many beggars," said a veteran beggar about the prospects. I don't know if this is going to become a trend. I only wonder when this illegal, irrational behavior of using children as money-makers will ever reach an end.
(YCWB) March 1, 2004.
Kaili city, Guizhou province is a nationally renowned "beggar town." Some people claim that 60% of the residents go out to beg. Kaili is the capital of the Miao/Dong ethnic minorities autonomous region in southeastern Guizhou province. The city has the typical feel of small western cities: the buildings are not tall and the streets are clean, with fashionably dressed young women mixing with peasants carrying baskets on their backs. The occasional Miao woman dressed in black with a towel on the head reminds one that this is Miao county. More than 50% of Kaili residents are Miao people.
"A lot of you Kaili people go out to beg?" Each time I mention this subject to hotel service workers or restaurant owners, or taxi drivers, they usually smile in embarrassment and then explain: "You are talking mostly about Kaitong town and Banxi in Three Tree Town. Nobody else goes out to beg!"
"(Sigh) They are too poor there! They can't live unless they go out (to beg)!" The taxi driver Master Yu sighed and told me. "My family used to live there. But I don't tell anyone now that I am from Banxi." Master Yu inhaled strongly from his cigarette. "Basically, every family goes out to beg. Very few don't. Especially during the summer and winter holidays. Almost all of the children in the village go out. Whenever I say that I am from Banxi, they will ask me whether I went out to beg."
So I decided to go to Banxi. At the Three Tree Town education guidance center, I found a teacher named Long to serve as my guide.
Teacher Long is 33-years-old. He graduated from a local teacher's college. About his own education, he sighed and said: "We are too poor ... I borrowed money in order to study. I only finished paying my debts off last year."
He said that there are 50,000 people in the town, and almost 10,000 go out to work. "Basically anyone who can go out goes. When someone dies in the village, they can't even find adults to carry the coffin!" Long said so while pointing at Xiaocunzhai.
Xiaocunzhai sits halfway on the mountain. The houses are made of dark wood. "This is a decent place. At least, it is easy to get here. It is a lot better than Banxi!" Teacher Long pointed at the cement road which leads all the way to Hunan province.
Teacher Long said that the students in the Banxi area all go out to beg during the summer and winter holidays. This is a local custom.
Why do so many people go out to beg? Teacher Long sighed and said: "The natural conditions are poor. We are at high altitude, very little land is arable, transportation is inconvenient, and we are typically influenced by tradition so that families have three to four children, even five to six children. So we have too many people and not enough land. We can't even grow enough food to feed ourselves ..."
Teacher Long said that even though many students go out to beg, very few actually drop out school. When the holidays end, these children will come back and continue to attend school.
An hour later, our car arrived at Langzhai village. I believe what Teacher Lang told me. The wooden houses were old, with some of the boards rotting and falling off. Some of the villagers place plastic sheets over the holes in the walls to keep the cold wind out. But some of them just left the holes alone. Although I was mentally prepared, I was still shocked.
The Langzhai Elementary School was situated halfway up the mountain. When we got there, school had just finished for the afternoon. The brightly dressed children rushed out of the classroom. Very few of them carried book bags. Mostly they hold their books in their hands.
How many of the students go out to beg during the holidays? Principal Li Jie said: "About 60% of the students will go out to beg during the holidays, especially during the Chinese New Year." Of the 302 students, 196 students went out to beg during the Chinese New Year. "Most of these students come from relatively poor families. If they don't beg, they will probably have to drop out of school." Principal Li Jie said.
When I met Li Yingping at the Langzhai village, this 15-year-old girl had just returned to the village after "earning her tuition fees" in Foshan. "The day after the exams I left. We took a coal train. There were 12 of us. We went to Shaoqing, Foshan, Longjiang, Xiqiao. We lived in the streets. When it rained, we stayed under the eaves of buildings." This young girl's eyes grew red as she spoke. She said that her mother passed away when she was four years old. His father married a stepmother who gave birth to a girl. The four of them live off the land of his father.
Li Yingping said that she began to go out with others to beg when she was eight years old. She earned just over ten yuan a day. All the money went to buy food for the family. When she was 10 years old, she learned to save money so that she could attend school.
I followed Li Yingping to her home. It is a wooden house where the wood has turned black. There are two houses. There were some farming implements. Otherwise there isn't even a table. Li Yingping's mother is a 30-something-year-old woman. She moved a stool over for me to sit on. Since she cannot speak, we had to use hand signals. Then Li Yingping's father came back. When we came to the subject of the daughters going out to beg, he hung down his head: "No other way. There is no other way for us. If there is any way, I would never let the children go out ..."
On February 24, Li Mingfei returned home from school. He is 17 years old. He has just entered First Year Senior High School. He plans to take one year off and go to earn money in order to continue his studies.
Li Mingfei is the second child in the family. The oldest son has hyperthyroid disease and is resting at home. One brother is in third year middle school, another brother is in sixth year elementary school and a sister is in third year elementary school. His father had led the villagers to interfere with family planning work and was sentenced to jail. He was just released last year. His mother is in poor health. Over the years, the family has relied on begging to keep them in school. "Since second year elementary school, I have gone out with them to beg for money. Nobody is ever home during the Chinese New Year." Li Mingfei mumbled as he sat in his home where the cold wind enters through the cracks in all directions.
According to local custom, small children do not have to go out begging once they enter junior high school. Li Mingfei said: "There is no other way, because we are too poor."
He said that when the winter holidays began this year, he, his younger brother, his younger sister and his mother traveled to Kaiping and Taishan in Guangdong province to beg. They continued until February 9 when they returned to go to school. But the four only managed to make 1,000 yuan, not enough even to pay his living expenses owed from the previous semester.
"The third boy is in the Kaili Sixth Middle School's Hope Class, so he does not have to pay tuition. Otherwise he would have to quit studying just like me ... actually, I went to attend one week of class. But when I considered that my family really could not afford the money, I had to sneak back." As Li Mingfei said this, his eyes turned slightly red. "Actually we were ready to sell our cow ..." Li Mingfei's uncle interjected from aside: "How can we sell the cow? How are we going to till the land without it?" Li Mingfei immediately argued back. We entered Li Mingfei's bedroom. One of the wooden walls had completely rotted away. It was covered by a plastic sheet to keep the rain and wind out. Li Mingfei said that he intends to go to Guangzhou and be a shoeshine boy ...