China’s Children of the Damned
By Gary Jones, Palani MohanMarch 18, 2013
They are the forgotten victims of crime, cast onto the mean streets of some of the world's biggest cities. Not even relatives want them, unless a quick profit can be made.
In the People’s Republic of China, capital punishment may be administered for more than 50 crimes ranging from murder to government corruption and tax evasion.
While the number of criminals executed each year is a Chinese state secret, international watchdogs claim China kills thousands of its citizens annually. In 2009, respected San Francisco-based humanitarian organisation the Dui Hua Foundation estimated that 5,000 people were executed in the world’s most populous country, more than the rest of the world combined (the United States put 46 people to their untimely deaths in 2010). Countless Chinese criminals who escape execution receive prison sentences that, rights groups insist, can be excessively long for the crimes committed.
Among the innocent victims of executions and long incarcerations are the children of criminals. Youngsters whose parents have been executed are not “legally” considered orphans and are not cared for by the Chinese state. And while family members — grandparents, uncles and aunties — are expected to take responsibility for these children, financial and personal circumstances often result in the young and vulnerable having nowhere to turn.
“These are the children nobody wants,” says Koen Sevenants, the Belgian founder of non-governmental organisation Morning Tears that supports the welfare of such children in China. Sevenants’ young dependents include the children of murderers, gangsters, rapists and drug smugglers. A substantial proportion are the progeny of violent homes. “Very often relatives don’t want them. In cases of murder resulting from domestic abuse, the father’s family don’t want them because they see the mother in the children. The mother’s family see the father.”
Sevenants, 42, explains that the origins of Morning Tears can be traced back to 1996, when four Chinese judges — obliged by law to hand out death sentences and long jail terms — recognised the plight of the children left behind when parents were executed or locked away for decades. Distressed by that knowledge, they decided to act, personally financing three centres in and around the city of Xian, home to the celebrated Terracotta Warriors.
But the judges’ cash drained away quickly, and their first centre closed after just two years. The following year the second space wound up. The third was about to expire when Sevenants — based in the Chinese capital Beijing at the time, and employed by Handicap International as country manager for China and North Korea — discovered it. “A colleague and I started out as volunteers,” Sevenants says, shrugging at the memory of their naivety. “And then everything spun totally out of control.
“One day, you realise that you are thinking a lot about the children. You can’t sleep when they have problems. Anyway, after a while, we said, ‘This has gone much too far.’ We decided to source the money to keep the kids going for two years, and hand everything over to local people. For us, it would end; we could get on with our lives. And that’s what we did. And that went well for … about two weeks. We couldn’t walk away, we just couldn’t, and so we decided to do things properly.”
Today, Morning Tears has 100 or so staff in China — about 40 are volunteers — and fundraising presence in the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany and Spain, as well as China and Cambodia.
The organisation shores up four core specialised childcare centres in China: the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project close to Zhengzhou, capital city of north-central China’s Henan province, two centres near Xian, and another in Beijing. There are smaller operations in the cities of Chengdu and Wuhan. Morning Tears supports — at various levels, from full-care to individual assistance with schooling — about 580 children. More than 1,000 youngsters have benefited since Morning Tears was founded; its earliest wards are now adults.
Above: Brothers Xiao Ze and Xiao Wei, from the Sanyuan Children’s Village. Their father was executed for murder in 1995. View more photos.
THERE WERE 600,000 CHILDREN OF CONVICTS in the country in 2008, according to the Chinese Ministry of Justice’s most recent statistics. Many of those are without guardians, and such youngsters beg, hustle and thieve to survive. Childhood trauma manifests itself in self-harm, anti-social behaviour and nightmares, says Sevenants, and many sufferers will also become convicts in a pan-generational cycle of misery (a child of an inmate, Sevenants says, is six times more likely to go to prison than other children).
“In the past, 90 per cent of the children we supported were from rural, financially disadvantaged backgrounds,” Sevenants says. “That has changed and there is more diversity these days. Urban drugs have played a large part, and we are increasingly taking in kids originally from quite well-off families. It’s proving a challenge for us, having to mix poor children — who actually get a financial upgrade in life by staying with us — and kids of drug smugglers and dealers whose lifestyles are being downgraded.”
Sevenants, who holds a doctorate in psychology and who has worked for aid groups all of his adult life, says many children in his care have been through extremely traumatising events. “In many cases there has been domestic violence. Many [children] have been subject to physical abuse, and sexual abuse in some cases. Children who have seen a mother brutally beaten … that can be more traumatising to a child than being beaten themselves. That is a parent they love and they want to protect that parent, but at that age they cannot.”
Sevenants believes it is preferable for children to be cared for by family members if possible, and there have been instances of children being taken away by relatives after years in Morning Tears care. Blood ties, however, can sometimes prove less than ideal.
“A child might go to an aunt or a grandparent, but their education could stop,” Sevenants says. “They will have to earn their keep, they might be beaten, and then, after a time, they can be cast aside and traumatised for a second time. We’ve had kids arrive back here with bruises and cuts. They are underweight, they haven’t been to school for years ...”
There are many reasons, Sevenants believes, why relatives might collect children. “We had one case of pure child torture — a brother and a sister, 13 and 10 years old,” Sevenants says. “Their parents had been executed for drug smuggling, and an uncle was convinced that money had been hidden away. The uncle tied the children to chairs and beat them for information. When he failed to find money, he just returned them to us.”
There is also the prospect of families reclaiming adolescent girls to marry them off for money. Traditionally the groom’s family must pay the bride’s kin. “Girls, maybe 14 or 15 years old, have been taken away because relatives want to marry them off,” Sevenants says. “I worry when a girl of that age is taken from us.”
WHILE THE SITUATION FOR CHILDREN OF CRIMINALS in China is far from ideal, Sevenants says improvements are gradually being made. The Belgian has been employed as a consultant to the Chinese government in the upgrade of child-protection laws and procedures, and Morning Tears and local authorities collaborate. The Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project, for instance, is jointly operated by Morning Tears and the state-run Zhengzhou Children Protection Centre. The centre is a currently a sanctuary to 44 children of convicts and the executed.
“I am one of these children,” says bespectacled Ai Tong Yuan Director Kou Wei, 35, whose mother killed her violent father in 1996, while she was studying English at university in Xian. “They feel safe with me. It’s difficult to put into the words, but I strongly believe that the children understand me.”
Despite the myriad problems they confront every day, Kou and Sevenants agree: the rewards of their cause outweigh the heartache. “Relearning how to play, to trust and make attachments, is very important,” Sevenants says. “We give the children a safe environment in which to do that. It’s a glorious moment, it feels fantastic, when you see a child, who was terribly traumatised on arrival, start to play again.”
Children’s names have been changed. Their stories and portraits have been approved for publication by their guardians at the Ai Tong Yuan Coming Home Project and Sanyuan Children’s Village.