- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

XI'AN, China When Black Bean was 4 years old, his mother and her lover stabbed his father to death. The lover was executed for murder and his mother was sentenced to 15 years as an accomplice. Yet the little boy's nightmare had only just begun. Reviled by the whole village, including many relatives, he was abused by adults and children alike.
"I cried quietly while I was filming him," remembers Li Yaming, a documentary filmmaker who trekked to Black Bean's remote village in Shaanxi province, northwest China.
"At 5, he was less than 3 feet high, with severe burns, scars and wounds all over his tiny body. His right leg was crippled, either from being beaten or from a fall when minding the goats. Some villagers said Black Bean would definitely die if he stayed there."
Mr. Li and his camera were on hand to capture the moment the scarred child first limped into his mother's prison in the provincial capital, Xi'an. His mother cried when she saw how her son had changed since her incarceration. Yet amid the tears, there was relief and gratitude to maverick prison officer Zhang Suqing.
Rescuing Black Bean was another small victory in Mrs. Zhang's struggle to help some of China's most destitute families. For the last five years, the feisty grandmother, a 52-year-old divorcee, has battled social prejudice and government indifference to establish a Children's Village in Xi'an. This care center for the offspring of serving convicts is the first of its kind in China, and one of the country's few nongovernmental organizations worth the name.

Dark side of China

Li Yaming has recorded every major step of Mrs. Zhang's trail-blazing crusade. "Anyone less determined than Mrs. Zhang would have long given up," says Mr. Li. "We went down to the villages to bring back children and we were greeted with suspicion and hostility. Some called us bad names, even spat on us, while some thought we would try and sell the children."
The journey has taken Mrs. Zhang into the darkest reaches of modern Chinese society. Far from the bright lights of Shanghai and the political pomp of Beijing, centuries-old customs and attitudes prevail in the villages where most Chinese still live. Black Bean's mother, Han Jing, had herself barely turned 11 when she was sold into marriage with a peasant farmer from a neighboring village. The match was brokered to enable her older brother to marry the farmer's sister.
Thrust rudely into the roles of wife and mother, Han sought solace from her abusive husband in the arms of his younger brother. When the older man refused a divorce, he was killed in a flash of long-repressed anger. As soon as Mrs. Han learned from other prisoners of Mrs. Zhang's plans for a Children's Village, she applied for Black Bean, the nickname of her son, Chen Xin, and his 6-year-old sister, Chen Jun.
The children had been split up since their mother's imprisonment, after Han's brother refused refuge to his nephew and niece. The local government promised a monthly subsidy of $13 to any family who would take the children, no small amount in an impoverished community.
Chen Jun was taken by the village head's family, while Black Bean changed hands four times before ending up with a fellow outcast, a midget who lived alone. Besides the welcome subsidy, the boy's new guardian found a useful slave, whom he beat into cooking for him and tending his goats in the mountains. While the children threw stones at Black Bean, the local parents threw insults at him.
Scars still cover his scalp, and he remains shorter than his playmates, but today Black Bean is sprouting anew. On a winter day in the Xian suburbs, he cavorted in an oversized coat donated by a local company. Here at Xincheng Children's Village, Mrs. Zhang's second center, almost everything is a castoff, from the shaky dining tables to the old school benches and bookshelves.
Black Bean is too shy to answer questions, but explodes in laughter as he foot-juggles a homemade shuttlecock. Other children crowd around their common savior, grabbing her hands.
"Granny Zhang, how are you?" they say. She basks in their attention, asking one girl if she is warm enough and asking a boy in jest whether he still wets his bed.
Her roles range from fund-raiser and manager to lobbyist and social worker.
"Many of these children are traumatized," she explains. "Chen Jun was so quiet with no smile when she first arrived here.
"One year, I took her and other kids home for the Spring Festival. We were washing up together when she suddenly told me in tears how her dad was stabbed in the chest and how the blood spurted everywhere. She had been having nightmares every night. I comforted her, saying her mother and all of us loved her. It was good for her to let it out and gradually she became more lively."

'Desperate lives'

Zhang Suqing boasts no formal qualifications for her multiple roles and responsibilities. Her career and interests have been shaped by the five-decade history of communist China. Born to a poor family in Baoji city, west Shaanxi, she was sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants during the Cultural Revolution.
In backward and mountainous areas, Mrs. Zhang achieved her real education as a nurse, and later a barefoot doctor. Her writing hobby finally won her a return to the city in 1984. The job at Public Health News in Xian brought official permission to leave the countryside, and a long-anticipated reunion with her husband. However, married life proved impossible to renew. Mrs. Zhang and her husband divorced.
She took custody of their two daughters and put her energy behind another career move, becoming a prison officer to run a newspaper for the Shaanxi Prison Bureau.
"I loved my job and my uniform," Mrs. Zhang remembers with excitement.
"They opened doors into desperate lives.
"In 1987, I interviewed a couple who were serving prison sentences. The women knelt down and begged me to go to see their five young children, all under their grandma's care."
She kept her promise and walked into the hills where millions of Chinese still live in caves.
"When I got to their cave, I was shocked by what I saw," she said.
"The old woman was sick and the four kids were curled up on the mud-brick bed. The eldest daughter had died from illness."
Mrs. Zhang offered what help she could and went home with a heavy heart. The need for humanity became the abiding theme in the prison-life stories and scripts she wrote for TV dramas.
In 1995, Mrs. Zhang undertook her first independent effort, the Xian Returning To Society Research Association, which offers legal and other advice to released prisoners. Rejections from government offices meant Mrs. Zhang was obliged to register the association as a nongovernmental organization, or NGO.
At the opening ceremony, her care-center proposal for the children of the prisoners aroused strong opposition. One city leader said, "Why don't you care for children from decent families, such as laid-off workers or even martyrs?" she said.
Funding was her main obstacle. But China's vicious recent past proved the catalyst for Guo Jianhu, a wealthy entrepreneur, to donate housing in an area 40 miles from Xian. Mr. Guo's own children had suffered discrimination when he was wrongfully imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution.
After much pleading, nearby schools agreed to take the children free of charge.
On May 26, 1996, the Xian Children's Village formally opened with 26 of the most needy children, selected from 90 applications made by prisoners in Shaanxi.

Sins of the parents

"It was a victory for human rights," said Li Yaming.
"It's incredible, a big step toward a more civilized society. Traditionally, people believe criminals and even their children deserve to be discriminated against and despised. To them, that's justice being done."
When funds from his TV station dried up, Mr. Li used his own money to film more stories from the Children's Village. His documentary "The Story of Black Bean" became a hit in China, but Mr. Li still was criticized by his superiors this month for showing the program abroad.
Whatever the pressures of her position, Mrs. Zhang keeps a ready smile, her morale boosted by media coverage of the villages, financial help and support from strangers and the reaction of grateful parents. At the end of 1997, a survey showed that 98 percent of prisoners with offspring at Mrs. Zhang's centers won praise or reduced sentences for their improved behavior.
Selling noodles at her market stand near Xincheng Children's Village, 30-year-old Jiang Yanzhen remembers her own jail term with a shudder, particularly the time her eldest son was kidnapped. After being raped by a local drug dealer, the former school teacher had no choice but to marry him.
One night, Mrs. Jiang put up a fight when he began beating her and their two sons again. She was jailed for manslaughter.
"Every day I worried something terrible might happen to my younger son, Taotao," says Mrs. Jiang, who turned her anger against other inmates. As soon as she heard about Mrs. Zhang's Village, she applied.
"Our crimes brought great misfortune to our two children," she wrote later in a letter of thanks. "I was so depressed, but when I nearly wanted to give up my life, you gave me the courage to live again. Now, the only thing in my mind is to reform myself completely."
Mrs. Jiang's good behavior won a two-year reduction from her six-year sentence. Such success encouraged Mrs. Zhang to build a second Children's Village, with public donations and free land from the district government. But construction halted when several promised donations failed to materialize. By New Year's Eve 1998, Mrs. Zhang was down to only $75.
"I stayed up all night, drinking white alcoholic spirits by myself, thinking hard," Mrs. Zhang recounts.
"I drifted to sleep with the idea I would attempt a bank loan with my apartment as deposit. Then, the very next day, I was informed that a Hong Kong businessman had just donated $12,000."
Mrs. Zhang's force of personality won over many of the people she has met. Journalist Huang Ruizhen came to interview her for local radio and became a part-time volunteer and then a full-time member of staff, despite a large pay cut. Sculptor and entrepreneur Zou Renti made regular donations after his first visit.

Quest for cash

As her charges grow up, Mrs. Zhang badly needs the support of people like Mr. Zou to meet the challenges of further education and employment. When Wen Long graduated in 1998 with a primary-level education, he was already 17, too embarrassed to continue sitting with students six years his junior. After countless rejections, Mrs. Zhang turned to Mr. Zou and his studio producing silica gel waxworks. Mr. Zou remembers the interview: " 'Do you know what sculpture is?' I asked. 'No, he replied, 'but I played with mud before.'
" 'That'll do,' "

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