It’s 5:00 a.m. in Liaoning Province and a shrill whistle pierces the still air. All of a sudden, the lights turn on and a small group of eight-year-old boys springs up from the ground where they had been sleeping and start folding their blankets. They quickly put on their clothes and rush outside, meeting up with a group of slightly older children. They form an orderly line and begin running as the man they call “Father” looks on with a proud glint in his eyes.
These eleven children have one thing in common: they are orphans. However, they are not orphans in the traditional sense. In fact, they all have at least one biological parent who is still living, but unfortunately, those parents are in prison. Some children “lost” their parents very early in their lives—in Hai Mei’s case, her mother was pregnant with her when she was convicted for illegally dealing drugs. Others led seemingly normal lives with both parents until more recently—Hai Jing’s father murdered her mother right in front of her eyes just two years ago.
Normally, these children would have been left on the streets to fend for themselves without their parents to care for them. However, in recent years a small network of orphanages in China has emerged to support and nurture them. These so-called Children’s Villages operate under the principle that the children should be given a second chance rather than be left to suffer for their parents’ mistakes.
“If today we nurture a Children’s Village then tomorrow we will build one less jailhouse.”
Dalian Children’s Village is one of nine in China that work together to house underage children whose parents are in prison. Their stated goal is to provide an environment in which the children can “live a life of dignity and responsibility.” These children are in a unique situation: they are not officially recognized by the Chinese government as orphans because their parents are still alive. Thus, they do not qualify for admission into normal orphanages and foster homes, making the Children’s Villages their only safe havens.
Before the Children’s Villages, the lives of the approximately 600,000 children who lost their parents to incarceration were often dire. In some lucky cases, relatives would take the children in and raise them until their parents were released. However, this is rare for several reasons, ranging from the cost of raising an additional child to societal disdain for anyone directly associated with a criminal. These children are thus forced to survive on their own and often become victims of human trafficking.
In addition, many of these children do not have Resident Identity Cards and thus do not qualify as legal citizens of China. These IDs are similar to Social Security cards in the United States. There are two main scenarios in which an ID can be withheld from a Chinese-born person: when a child is born out of wedlock and when a child’s birth violates the One Child Policy. Unfortunately, many parents of these children broke one of these two laws in addition to committing the crimes that led to their incarcerations.
Living without an ID in China makes life extremely difficult—or rather, almost impossible. Without IDs, these children do not qualify for insurance, cannot attend college, and are restricted from travelling. There are currently an estimated 13 million people in China without IDs. Of the 11 children currently at Dalian Children’s Village, seven lack official identification.
“We were forced to eat the leftovers of our classmates because of what our parents did.”
Wang Gangyi became Head of Dalian Children’s Village in 2007 after a near-death experience while swimming in subzero water in the Arctic Ocean. He won a Guinness World Record for the feat, but despite his achievement, the harrowing episode caused him to reflect on his life. He told the HPR, “I sought to find something more meaningful to do: the true purpose of life. One day, I visited a prison and met an inmate who could not locate his child. Seeing his despair, I decided to go out and look for her. I found her under a bridge, freezing, and with her hands cracked open. This was when I decided to become more involved with this particular cause.”
Wang is also a lawyer, and he teaches law at Dalian University of Technology. He knows that the main obstacle for these children is their lack of IDs. He has spent years trying to find a legal route to provide them official identification, but he has so far been unsuccessful. When I ask the children what they want to be when they grow up, their answers include musician, professor, artist, and lawyer. However, Wang explains that “without an ID, it is impossible for these children to achieve their dreams. There is no way for them to attend college.” Despite this, he still encourages them to dream big. He hopes that one day there will be a solution.
Because of these unfortunate circumstances, Wang does everything he can to make sure that the children will be equipped with the necessary skills to survive outside the orphanage. For example, he and one of the orphanage directors teach the children traditional Chinese medicine. Wang also stresses the importance of being well rounded by encouraging the children to pursue their ambitions in arts, music, and sports. He works with local community members to provide resources such as dance and music lessons. At 5:00 a.m. every day, the children run three kilometers to stay physically healthy and build mental willpower. Wang has a proud look on his face when he tells me how one child, Hai Zhu, won her school’s running competition last year.
However, even for the four children who are fortunate enough to have IDs, life will not be easy. According to Wang, because their parents are in prison, they “will always be looked down upon by society—with or without IDs. They will not find prestigious jobs. In fact, one child recently graduated from Dalian University of Foreign Languages, but he hasn’t found a job yet. The only available jobs for them are menial, minimum wage jobs.” To many members of society, these children will always be known as the children of criminals, a harmful stigma that can lead to overt discrimination.
The children feel this societal marginalization from a young age. Hai Zhu looks visibly upset as she recounts to me her experiences at her former school: she was routinely bullied, not only by her peers but also by her teachers. They let every other student eat lunch first while she and the other orphans were required to stay behind. Because the orphans could not pay the full price for lunch, they were only given leftovers. Furthermore, because the orphans could not afford school uniforms, they were not allowed to attend the weekly flag ceremonies. Hai Zhu and her fellow orphans were also restricted from using buses, so they had to walk 45 minutes every day to their school.
Only after Wang’s tireless efforts has their situation improved. He has worked with school administrators and teachers to make sure the orphans are treated fairly. Wang tells me that he tries his “best to make up for the lack of affection and try to make these marginalized children feel the warmth of home. In other orphanages, the director isn’t called ‘Father,’ but I am here. I believe that a father’s responsibility is greater. It is more humane and more cordial. We want our children to live just like the other children in society.”
“Death and crime were the only things these children experienced. Discipline is necessary.”
The pre-sunrise jogs that the children have every morning are just one example of the strict discipline that can be found at Dalian Children’s Village. When Dalian Children’s Village was first founded, Wang recalls, the children would spit, steal, and throw objects at each other—behavior they had learned from their parents. Because of this, he believes it is important to adhere to strict discipline and teach them to discern between right and wrong.
Dalian Children’s Village is located on a farm, so each child is assigned chores such as cleaning out manure and feeding the livestock. Even though many eight-year-olds would balk at the idea of doing such tasks, these children do not complain and instead carry out their chores with smiles on their faces. I notice during my visit that except for a small, red English-Chinese electronic dictionary, there are no electronic devices to be found. However, when I ask the children how they feel about this, they tell me that they do not mind that the entire orphanage is almost devoid of any possible distractions from their work or studying. In fact, when the children first introduced themselves to me, every single one of them cited reading as his or her favorite hobby.
The children are also expected to be entirely self-sufficient. Even the youngest, Hai Fei who is six, cleans his own clothes and washes his own dishes. The orphanage receives many visitors throughout the week from neighboring cities, and volunteers come from various organizations to help out. Harvard China Care sends Harvard College students to Dalian Children’s Village during school breaks to teach the children and help with daily chores. However, the children are considerate of their guests and respectfully turn down any help. It quickly becomes apparent to me that they look towards the needs of others before their own. Even if they are given snacks and gifts, they kindly accept them and then turn everything over to their Father.
Yet, even with strict rules discipline, the children do not hesitate to describe their happiness and gratitude for having been given this chance to start over after their parents were taken away from them. Society may view these children unfavorably because of the crimes their parents committed, but they do not let this discourage them. Dan-Dan Li ’15, former Orphanage Liaison of Harvard China Care, explained to the HPR, “I know that these children are disdained by many, but they are still really happy and outgoing. This really surprised me. During my stay at Dalian Children’s Village, they would always take my hand, show me all these places, and share about their lives. They’ve been through a lot of hardship, especially for their age, so you can see that they have matured greatly.”
Love and Forgiveness
It is now 5:00 p.m. and all of the children have just returned from school. Everyone decides to take a short break and take out paper to draw. Hai Jing draws a butterfly. When she finishes, she pauses and looks down longingly at her artwork as her eyes well up with tears. When I ask her to describe her feelings, she replies: “I hope that one day, this butterfly will be able to fly to my father. I want it to tell him that I am okay and let him know that I forgive him—that I love him no matter what.”
Image source: Joe Choe