China is a land of contradictions: It has the very, very rich and it has the very, very poor. It has incredible state of the art industries juxtaposed with “cottage industries” straight out of the Industrial revolution. It's rapid economic growth and resultant prosperity that this has brought to the lucky few is matched only by those that it has left behind; the poor, the old and most sadly the forgotten Street Children of China.
Estimates of China's street children population vary depending on the definition used. In the west we tend to think of street people as the homeless that sleep rough in subways and underpasses, that do not earn income and are dissociated totally from society but this is a very limited definition and does not reflect totally the extent of the “street children” problem in China or it's social ramifications.
If we subscribe to a limited definition of Street people i.e. those that do not have have a regular roof over their heads, then China's street kid population is estimated at be around 150, 000. If we subscribe to a broader definition, which I will shortly address, the number swells to about 1.5 million by best estimates. I say “best” estimates because quite frankly no-one really knows, not the Chinese Government nor international human rights or aid organisations.
It has been argued that we should not define street children in simplistic terms, such as accommodation status, but more in terms of their “relationship” to the streets. Most average children, thankfully, do not have a “relationship” with the “Street” They live in normal family situations with access to sustenance, health care, shelter, education and normal relationships .
A “street Kid” on the other hand has a full on “relationship” to the street. It is where he spends the majority of his day. It is where he works, or steals, to get money to feed and clothe himself. It is where all of his social relationships are formed with children in like circumstance and, more than likely, extremely unsavoury adults. This is where he gets his “education”, not in a school room, but in a real and very hard, dangerous world.
Some do sleep rough some may well have a “steady” roof over their heads, albeit, probably not in optimal circumstances. Some do sleep at “home”, usually a very dysfunctional one. Some live in shelters or flop with friends. Quite a lot live in “Faginesque” relationships crowded many to cramped areas, used and abused by adults, physically, mentally and utilised virtually as slaves to work, beg and to steal for their “protectors”.
We can, from information learned from NGOs involved in caring for street children, build a profile of China's street kids. They are normally, though not exclusively, male between the age of 9 and 14, They are usually children of migrant and or ethnic minority parents. A majority are the product of broken or dysfunctional families some of whom have “sold” them for cash or to earn regular stipends. Some are orphans or children of single parents.
In addition, they are often bullied and exploited by other street children and adults. They are highly prone to police brutality at the hands of China's “Chengguan”, municipal law enforcement officials, and normal citizens as well. A YouTube video doing the rounds recently showed a group of Han Chinese literally smashing the hands of a young Uyghur kid to a bloody pulp. The video poster did not attempt to explain the circumstances and many commentors saw it as proof of Han antipathy to Uyghurs generally. More than likely, I would say, that the Han men had caught a street child pickpocket who just happened to be Uyghur.
Girls, whilst not in the majority obviously are at extreme risk of being molested, physically and sexually abused and forced into prostitution.
Many street children suffer from physical retardation or mental issues thus making them extremely prone to abuse. There are also many stories, not only anecdotal, of street children having arms and legs broken or deformed so as to make them more “attractive” as beggars for their “protectors who make not inconsiderable income from them. One investigative journalist provided evidence to the government of huge incomes being generated by these children for these modern Fagins. Only recently several adults were sentenced to death over the purchasing, kidnapping, trafficking and murder of children for this very end.
The plight of street children is obviously not unique to China. Every country in the world, be it First or Third World, experiences the problem to differing degrees. What sets China apart is that despite it's phenomenal growth economically over the last few decades and the striking growth of a wealthy class that so little is being done by the Chinese Government to address this problem.
In the west we have very stringent and comprehensive laws protecting children. We have government departments charged with the protection of children's rights. We have social welfare schemes in place so that theoretically no child should have to go hungry or be without basic medical care. We have non government and charitable organisations dedicated to helping our street children. And, I think, we have a more top of mind awareness of the welfare of children generally.
The driver to ameliorate China Street Children problem can only be the central Chinese Government. Like many issues in the past the Government has responded to calls for greater care of China's Street Children but only after international pressure. Much is said and promised and as the furore dies so does the government's attention.
The Government must enact strict and comprehensive laws providing strong punishment for abusers, traffickers and users of children. It must bolster it's Community services departments to more actively investigate and enforce the laws concerning child and family welfare. It must work tirelessly with provincial, county and urban governments to enforce these laws. It must invest in, support financially and work hand in hand with NGO's for the rehabilitation and protection of Street Children.
Undoubtedly, China is a large and rapidly evolving country. It faces numerous challenges in all areas of human rights concerns, from mining safety, through to migrant worker issues and issues relating to housing, health care and poverty. The task of addressing these issues is immense but, surely, when it comes to the weakest, the most vulnerable and the most trusting of China's, or any country's citizens, then there can not be an issue of greater concern then the “little children”
P.S. In an article appearing on Thursday August 18, the Chinese Government announced new initiatives relating to China's Street Children