Sheltering youths from past


BEIJING - The boy nicknamed Black Bean doesn't like to talk about the past, but his scars tell part of his story. The skin around the boy's mouth is pinched, marking the area where a man who kept him as a virtual slave burned his face with tongs from a fireplace.

There are strips of scalp where hair no longer grows, places where he was beaten with sticks.

Black Bean keeps his most painful wound hidden behind dark eyes that dart about when strangers ask about his family. His father is dead, stabbed and dumped in a well with a heavy stone tied around his neck. His mother, who helped plot the killing, just got out of jail after more than seven years.

Black Bean is 11 years old but looks no older than 6, and says he is happy where he lives now, a communal home he shares with 50 children in Shunyi County, an hour's drive northeast of downtown Beijing. "When I stayed at home," he said, "I felt alone."

He lives in the Beijing Children's Village, a nonprofit group home for abandoned children with especially tragic pasts. Most are here because one of their parents killed the other.

The children's stories are chilling. Some of their mothers and fathers engaged in murderous love triangles. Some subjected their children to savage beatings or sex abuse.

What makes the Children's Village so remarkable, though, is that it exists at all. It is not the creation of a Communist Party committee, but the work of Zhang Shuqin, a retired prison employee whom the children call Granny Zhang.

In a nation where most people are obsessed with getting ahead and would never consider giving money to the disadvantaged, Zhang is a pioneer in her efforts to instill a sense of social responsibility. Her children's villages are among 10,000 nongovernmental organizations in a country where a dozen years ago there were practically none.

Zhang opened her first children's village in 1996 in Western China's Shaanxi province. Now there are three. Zhang dreams of having one in each of China's 33 provinces and regions.

The Beijing village sits inside a brick compound that is the former home of a county health clinic. The walls are painted orange, pink and aquamarine, and the courtyards have a lush lawn plus a basketball hoop and swing set. Photos of movie and pop stars line the rooms where the children, ages 1 1/2 to 16, sleep in bunk beds.

Except for their memories, there is nothing to remind the children of the unhappy lives they left behind.

Xiao Biao, 13, has to live with the memory of waking up to the sound of sawing and discovering his mother and her lover carving up his father's poisoned corpse. Ma Jiadong, 11, lives with the memory of his father strangling his mother. "My father," Ma said, making a gun with his hand and pressing his index finger against his forehead. "My mother," he said, closing his hands around his throat.

Domestic violence is a growing problem in China. The nation's shift from a command economy to one driven by the profit motive has brought prosperity but also accelerated various social ills including violent crime, adultery and drug abuse.

While nongovernmental organizations - or NGOs - have emerged in the past decade to address some problems, the Communist Party makes it difficult for citizens to form independent organizations. The regime fears they could become political and eventually threaten its hold on power.

To avoid government harassment, Zhang developed a partnership with the China Charities Federation run by the Ministry of Civil Affairs. She files reports with the federation, which in turn provides financial support and political cover.

Because China is still relatively poor and the nation's rich give little, the Children's Village and other NGOs rely heavily on help from overseas. Much of the material in the villages are donated, most from foreign firms, embassies and Christian groups.

The village's one-room health center is called the Novartis Clinic, named for the Swiss pharmaceutical company. The International School of Beijing donated several dozen desks.

Granny Zhang runs a tight ship. Children are up at 5 a.m., eating breakfast at 6 a.m. and off to school 30 minutes later, marching in a line down a rural road. After school comes an hour of kung fu practice, supper at 6:50 p.m., homework and lights out by 9. On weekends, the children are allowed to sleep in until 7 a.m.

Children do have fun in the village. They play video games on new Chinese computers. On Saturdays they watch cartoons.

There are problems, especially with violence. Zhang has brought in psychologists to train staff in dealing with the anger the children carry with them.

Fourteen-year-old Gao Tianyang, whose mother killed his father, used to punch doors and attack other children with bricks and chairs. He was forced to stand in front of class while students criticized his behavior, a scene reminiscent of political struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Zhang urged Gao's mother to write letters and arranged a reunion. They now live together.

In all, Zhang's three villages care for about 150 children. Since 1996, 50 children have returned to live with a parent.

Zhang became concerned about the children of prisoners in the late 1980s when she worked as an editor at a prison newspaper in Shaanxi. A prisoner she interviewed asked her to check on his five children.

Zhang found four of them living with their sickly grandmother in a cave, not an uncommon way to live in Shaanxi. Unbeknownst to their father, the eldest, a 13-year-old girl, had died from illness.

After Zhang wrote about the family, letters arrived from other prisoners asking for help. Rural China has no equivalent to the social services in the United States. Children whose parents are dead or in jail either live in orphanages, move in with relatives or fend for themselves, sometimes turning to crime.

Zhang quit her job in 1994 and began working to create a children's home. There was a lot of resistance. Many saw the children as no better than their jailed parents. Why help the children of criminals, they asked.

"I told them criminals' children are also children," said Zhang, 54, sipping green tea from a glass jar between puffs of a long, thin cigarette.

Finding donors wasn't easy. She persuaded the manager of a starch factory to lend her part of an abandoned building. Zhang repaid him with publicity, praising the man in newspaper stories, organizing a ribbon-cutting ceremony and giving him honorary titles.

"I let him be the leader of the village," said Zhang, who combines the sentiment of the grandmother she is with the pragmatism of the prison guard she used to be.

Black Bean was one of the first children Zhang found and he remains one of her favorites.

He wears a soiled "Joe Cool" T-shirt with an image of Snoopy in shades on the front. He likes to play marbles, cards and pingpong. Zhang is especially fond of him because he helps sweep the floors and picks up toddlers when they stumble.

Black Bean's family was troubled from the beginning, mired in feudal attitudes that persist throughout much of China's countryside. The family of his mother, Han Enjing, swapped her at age 11 with another family's daughter to avoid paying for a wedding.

Han was forced to marry a man more than a decade older. Later, she fell in love with his younger brother and plotted her husband's death. Black Bean, then 4 years old, became an outcast. No relative would take him because they weren't sure who his real father was.

Local officials paid a man $12 a month to look after the boy. He forced Black Bean to tend goats, wash pots and look after the hearth. When Black Bean's mother heard about the children's village, she wrote Zhang from prison and asked her to look after him.

Black Bean lives in the Beijing village with his 13-year-old sister, Chen Jun. Her favorite story is "The Little Match Girl."

"I'm like her," said Chen, who wears a blue and white sweat suit, China's ubiquitous school uniform. "I like to imagine. I like to imagine my family is together."

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