NEW YORK TIMES
April 7, 2004
China Is Paying a Price of Modernization: More Beggars
By JIM YARDLEY
BEIJINGHis fingernails are lined with dirt as Zhang Tianhuo, 76, crouches on the stairs at the subway stop and shakes his empty noodle bowl. On another stairwell, Wang Xiujun, 70, rattles his tin cup. An old man with bent teeth has staked out yet another landing, and a wizened farmer has secured a spot near the entrance.
A short walk away, three ragged mothers watch without shame as their tiny children flock to patrons outside a coffee shop, pleading with dirty faces and shaking empty cups. "I have no choice," one mother, Zhang Yali, explained about why she allowed her 4-year-old son to beg. "The money we get lets us survive and eat."
For many years, beggars were rarely seen in the showcase cities of this country that still calls itself a socialist state. Image-conscious city officials ordered the police to arrest panhandlers and other homeless people, many of whom had traveled illegally from the destitute countryside.
But in the past six months, the number of beggars in Beijing and other Chinese cities has exploded. Their presence is another reminder of the growing divide between rich and poor in China as it rapidly switches to a market economy. But it is also an unanticipated result of a major civil rights victory last year - a curb on police arrest powers.
The rise of begging has also raised a pragmatic question all too familiar in the West: What should be done about them?
In recent months, many Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, have begun considering or have approved new regulations against begging. In March, People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, called for national regulations, signaling that legislation could be coming.
But such measures have prompted a debate in the Chinese press as intellectuals pushing for greater individual rights argue that modern China should have a society where people have the right to beg. And some urban residents, if irritated by clamoring vagrants, believe that the government must remedy the core problem of rural poverty.
"The country is a country of citizens, and all citizens enjoy equal rights," declared a commentary on the Web site of the Yangcheng Evening News. " 'Begging bans' are a form of administrative coercion."
The growing presence of beggars reflects the increasing mobility of Chinese society, partly because of the loosening, if not abandonment, of the household registration, or hukou, system that once tightly bound Chinese citizens to their home village or city.
In the past, the police could detain and repatriate anyone not carrying proper identification for a particular city. But last year, that law was abolished after the case of Sun Zhigang prompted national outrage. Mr. Sun died in police custody in Guangzhou after he was detained for not carrying a valid residency card.
Under the new law, the police must now try to persuade homeless people to seek services, like those at a shelter. In Beijing, the law was suspended during the recent meeting of the National People's Congress to permit the roundup of vagrants and beggars, but otherwise the police appear to be far more tolerant.
There have been reports in the Chinese media of organized begging rings, including some that exploit children. But many beggars are simply rural people like Mr. Zhang, the man begging for money with the noodle bowl. Last week, he hopped a train from his native Shandong Province after his small farm was flooded. He said he came to Beijing in hopes of gathering and selling scrap materials for money to buy his wife medicine, but wound up begging. The police, he said, have left him alone.
"Fate is defined by Heaven," said Mr. Zhang, reaching into his pocket and pulling out four coins worth about a quarter. "I have no money, but I can't resort to crime."
In Guangzhou, a new ban takes effect this month that prohibits begging in a host of places, including government buildings, subways, hospitals, stores, entertainment venues and parks, according to media reports. In Shanghai, the police have called for a special begging task force in response to complaints from merchants and some residents.
The urban public seems of mixed opinions. A poll in Guangzhou's Southern Daily found that 52 percent of respondents believed that begging bans did not solve the deeper problem of rural poverty, while 30 percent supported the ban, saying beggars damaged the city's image.
Outside the Beijing subway station, Hu Zhigang, a 24-year-old office worker, was among the many fashionably dressed people descending the stairs past the beggars. He said a ban would be an encroachment on their rights, but his sympathy extended only to those too old or too disabled to work.
"The government should do something to provide shelter, and do something to make the number of beggars smaller," Mr. Hu said.
Xu Youyu, a liberal political theorist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is one of many intellectuals who are trying to frame the debate over vagrants as one about defining the rights of individuals in this nondemocratic country.
"The debate is between intellectuals and municipal authorities," Mr. Xu said. "They think it is very, very important to have order and to make cities clean. Most Chinese intellectuals point out that it is time for us to think about individual rights."
In a counterargument, China Railway News, the official publication of the country's rail system, a magnet for vagrants, said the rights of people approached by beggars must also be respected. "Begging is a form of reward without labor," the newspaper wrote this month. "Their conduct amounts to stealing and threatening others' rights."
For Zhang Yali and Zhang Taige, two of the mothers outside the coffee shop, such debate is lost in the struggle to survive. Zhang Taige came to Beijing from central China, a divorced mother who says she has no other way to feed her family. As her 6-year-old daughter chases after passersby, Ms. Zhang does not hesitate when asked why she allows her child to beg on her behalf.
"People don't give money to adults," she said.
Copyright 2004, The New York Times Company
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