Catherine Vuylsteke

Writer, journalist, filmmaker & China-expert

What happens to the children of long term convicts in China?

Innocence murdered

It’s a misty Wednesday morning – or is it the smog playing tricks? In the hills around the old Chinese imperial capital of Xi’an, at the entrance to the hamlet of Milu, lies the Children’s Village. A series of houses is visible from behind the green iron gates. The vegetable gardens that surround them are dead and frozen at this time of the year. A dirt track goes past latrines with plastic-coated walls to a boiler room, a canteen and four identical bungalows that have recently been built with funds received from western companies and embassies.

Inside are a barely heated living room, two dorms for up to twenty kids, a laundry room and toilets that can only be used at night, and a small room for the live-in care provider. 

Seventy-six children have found a new home here.

Children’s Village is a strange world, as layered as an onion. From the outside, it resembles an ordinary Chinese school, ringing out with careless laughter and quarrelling voices in equal measure. I hear girls getting worked up about a hairpin and boys screaming in an dispute over the ownership of a football.

Beneath all of this are the hushed-up stories of the adults that work here, tragic tales of mothers that were taken away in shackles, of women that simply disappeared when their husbands were put behind bars or of others that made their children witness horror scenes, condemning them to endless nightmares or incurable bed-wetting.

Blood, violence and, in most cases, guilt have a stranglehold on these lives. Some people became transfixed on images of blunt axes, of kitchen knives in the hands of the desperate or of bowls of rice laced with rat poison. Others on the sight of unrecognisable family members – drunk, enraged, crying madly or having become motionless, stiff and cold.

The inner layers are only rarely visible and even then only for those in whom the children confide. They consist of silence, sorrow, anger and an utter sense of incomprehension. In short, they are made up of all those things for which kids often don’t have words and for which Chinese adults usually don’t want to provide them any. For they are not convinced of the nurturing effect of balancing dangerously above the gutter of the past in an often futile attempt to understand. Bie ku, guoqu jiu guoqu ba, is their mantra. Don’t cry, let bygones be bygones.

Children’s Village came into being about ten years ago at the behest of a few judges that first dispensed with the lives of men and women that were deemed incorrigible or unforgivable, only to find themselves stuck with the orphans they left behind. For the first time, boys and girls, whose future became uncertain after their past was executed, did not end up on the streets but in mini-institutions. Four in total, with fifty kids in each of them. Only the mercy of the judges didn’t last – three years after their creation, three of these centres had been closed down, leaving the last one all but doomed.

It is Big Brother Koen, as the kids call the equally idealistic and cuddly Belgian who works here, who saved the place. If you’d ask the eight-year-old Guo Lin, she’d attribute that miracle to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy that she always carries in her trouser pockets, but actually it was sometime during 1999 that western friends of the then NGO-worker Koen Sevenants enquired if he had any idea on what they could spend a remaining budget of 15,000 euros. He thought that money had to benefit the most needy, those that society and the state had spat out and removed from view. “If you realise that one in six of the nine million people that are behind bars worldwide are Chinese and that, according to figures provided by Amnesty International, 3,797 people were executed in China in 2005, then you get an idea of how many children are serving their own terms here”.

A lot had to be done. The basic needs of the children were barely taken care of, most of them didn’t have legal papers, which for example made it very difficult to go to school. Visiting mum or dad in prison rarely happened and there was no psychological counselling to speak of. Sevenants confirms: “We worked very hard and are proud of what we achieved. And what’s more, Morning Tears, as we’ve called our organisation, aims to become an international organisation consisting of and serving the children of long-term prisoners and executed people. We don’t just want to provide charity – these forgotten youngsters must be put on the agenda worldwide so as to force governments to assume their responsibilities.

It wasn’t easy. Sevenants explains that at one stage in 2003 he had wanted to give up completely because emotionally he couldn’t handle it anymore. “Sometimes you have to turn kids away. You see, we only have a limited capability and there are at least two hundred children of some one thousand female prisoners in Xi’an who urgently need shelter. That makes for some hard choices and, on top of that, success is not immediately guaranteed. One of the very experienced workers of Children’s Village once told me that she was sure that one third of the children would make it, another third could turn out fine provided adequate support was given and that the last third was lost. She might have exaggerated a bit but I don’t think she was entirely wrong”.

International research comes up with similar conclusions. The chance that children of prisoners end up behind bars themselves is six times higher than with ‘ordinary’ kids and they are also much more likely to suffer mentally”.

Yet Sevenants was unable to quit. “I couldn’t leave those children behind, children with whom I had spent so much time. I had to see them grow up”, he concedes with a smile. In the meantime, he redoubled his efforts to find donors amongst companies and he even managed to convince the governments of two Belgian provinces to commit to this project on a long-term basis.

At the same time, he established confidential ties with the Chinese government that would enable him to launch three more pilot projects with youngsters.

Forty euros a month
Miss Fang (50) hangs up the laundry next to bungalow number three, where she lives with some fourteen boys and girls of between three-and-a-half and seventeen years old. Her life isn’t easy. She earns less than forty euros a month, can only visit her husband and daughter every other weekend and isn’t entitled to any form of entertainment. Fang took up this job four years ago, when the state factory, where she had worked for decades, closed its doors.

Seeing her busy with the clothes pegs makes me think of what Zhang, the institution’s accountant, had said hours before. She didn’t make much of a fuss about it, but claimed that only those who can’t find other jobs are willing to work here. “Older workers that were laid off or pensioners with not much to do, like me”, she said.

Fang says she’s very happy with her job. “The love that the children give me is invaluable”, she says shyly. “Moreover, they badly need our attention and understanding. A normal person can scarcely imagine what these boys and girls have been through, often at a very early age. They don’t speak about it, but you cannot escape from the past. I remember that time when the older boys had been playing with red paint in the old building where we used to live. Seeing the red marks on the wall, one of the children fainted. She can’t stand the image of blood anymore. It reminds her of that evening, when her mum hacked her father to death and made her hold the bucket to collect the blood. The woman was executed by firing squad but her daughter’s nightmare continues”.

When they first get here, most children are very anxious but in the end they get to like this place more than their own family. Fang: “When I recently punished a thirteen-year-old girl who has been here for three years now, she said she didn’t mind. “At least you scold me for a reason, she explained, at home I used to be punished all the time without anyone ever explaining what was wrong. You know, Auntie”, she continued, ”I prefer this place a million times more than my own home. I never want to leave you again”.

“We also notice during prison visits. Some children don’t look at their parents, they don’t even answer their questions. They are consumed by feelings of hatred, towards those they hold responsible for ruining their lives. Those moments are very painful, especially if you take into account that for most of those detainees a visit of fifteen minutes three or four times a year is all they get”.

“Others are very fond of their mum or dad who is behind bars. They give them drawings and as soon as they hear that a visit is being arranged, they start saving up the desserts or cookies that they get, as these will make a nice present”.

The first children have come back from school. They say hello politely and take a good look at us newcomers. Finally, the most daring member of the group asks where we come from, which makes the others laugh nervously. “They must be from Belgium, just like Big Brother Koen”.

They put their schoolbags in their rooms but keep their coats on all day. There is no heating in the village primary school. Although it’s freezing cold, windows and doors are open all day, birds fly through the class rooms and even at the centre it’s really icy in the dorms and the canteen. “Auntie, don’t you have long underwear?” a boy asks me later in the day, when he sees me glued to the only heater that works in the canteen. I say I do and show him the three layers of clothing that have to protect me against the cold. He shrugs and says that I’ll get used to it.

After lunch, the girls jump up and down with an elastic thread while the boys play football. “Will you join us?” An enterprising girl with two ponytails takes my hand and smiles. It will be the first of many games that we teach each other. Kids’ songs from Holland, ‘telephone’, puzzles and many finger games fill the spare hours that we spend together over the next few days.

The girls definitely prefer ‘Big Bad Wolf’, in which I play the part of the dangerous, growling animal that devours one screaming kid after the other, while the others run about wildly, trying to avoid being captured.

I want the children to talk about themselves but as soon as I enquire about the pros and cons of living at this centre, I get nothing more than silence, alarmed glances and a most dismissive body language. And indeed, why would they confide in me?

Days go by. I have been promoted to be the platter of many a girl’s hair, I teach most of them how to do wheelbarrow races and establish a firm reputation as one who will forever suffer from the cold and the most relentless hunter of all Big Bad Wolves.
“Will you be here tomorrow?”, has become the standard phrase with which each night-time departure ends. “And the day after tomorrow? And when you’re back in Belgium, will you forget us or will you come to see us again?”

Guo Lin (8), a girl from a poor farming family in the nearby Gansu Province, whose mother disappeared after her father was sentenced to twelve years for armed robbery, insists most of all. “At what time will you arrive?”, she wants to know, while her fingers explore my hand, as if they were some big insect. “If you leave on Monday, how long will it be before you’re back? This summer? I’m supposed to go and see my Aunt for a couple of days then, but if I know that you’re coming, I won’t go”. Guo Lin laughs, she’s gauging my reaction. “The only person that has ever been so sweet to me as you have been”, she says on the last day, “was my grandmother. You know, it wasn’t that nice at home”.

The child of a prisoner herself
There are few other confidentialities. But then, what should you expect from boys and girls that have yet to learn their times tables? Still, at times, stories surface unexpectedly. At least, that’s how it went with Kou Wei, Sevenants’ English interpreter, whose commitment to Morning Tears is even more radical than his. He says she’s never revealed her past to anyone, except to him, that is, and now to me. “I never thought I’d get so involved in this project”, says a visibly nervous Kou Wei, while she sips soothing chrysanthemum tea. “At least, not before I became the child of a prisoner myself”.

She’s not too sure where to start. “Maybe it would be a good idea to summarise my youth for you. It was an era of constant fear, ever unexpected blows and never-ending nightmares. I don’t think my father was ever nice to me or to my mother. We only had peace of mind when he was out”.
The outside world knew him as a quiet, friendly policeman. And as the worthy son of his father, the party secretary in our district capital”. Only their neighbours and relatives ever saw his true face. For those that lived nearby, it revealed itself in the all too frequent, desperate cries of Kou and her mother, while the members of the family got to see the bruises with which their bodies were more often than not covered. “As soon as he started picking a fight, I ran off to the neighbours. During all of my childhood, I found comfort in the arms of the woman next door. But she couldn’t help me. I’m sure you know the Chinese saying. It is better, it goes, to destroy ten temples than to tear apart one family. She used to say that it would pass and that shit happens. It is our fate”.

But Kou’s mother, a doctor, wasn’t willing to take it lying down. She filed many complaints at the local police station and repeatedly turned to the People’s Court to request a divorce. “That only made his anger worse”, says Kou. “My grandfather, whom you could easily compare to the Almighty, was always informed straight away and for him such a disgrace was utterly unthinkable in a family like ours.
Kou’s words get stuck in her throat. “You know, my mother was really a good wife, although she had a very demanding job. She cooked my father’s meals every day and kept the apartment very tidy. I am convinced that my father’s rage had to do with something else, with his unfulfilled dream: he wanted a son, you see, not a daughter like me”.

I can tell that she considers it as being her fault. “I should have protected my mother much better, only I didn’t know how. After I’d left to study English at the university in Xi’an, I often lay awake all night. What would he do to her? Before I left, I had made her promise that she’d wait for me. As soon as I graduated, I would take up a well-paid job in Beijing and then we’d live together. But it wasn’t meant to be”.

The nineteen-year-old Kou was in the third year of university when the call came from her best friend. Could she come home? He had to talk to her. A couple of minutes later, her mum called, saying she had to leave for a training course. She instructed her daughter to go to her grandma’s place during the holidays. It would be the last sign of her mother. The next time she saw or heard from her was seven months later, in court.

“I had a premonition. The night before it happened, I had woken up all of my fellow students in the dorm with my screams, dreaming that I was being killed with a knife”.

There’s not much that Kou remembers of the day itself, apart from the conversation with her friend. He said her mother had killed her father when he tried to get hold of the money she had put aside for Kou’s education.

During the following three days, her uncle would tell her afterwards, Kou was in a permanent state of shock. She wasn’t aware of what people said to her and only after the doctor had managed to inject a tranquilliser did she fall asleep.

“The only one who got to see my mother in all that time was her lawyer, who was to pass on the message that I was to be kept out of all of this at any cost. However, my uncle explained to me that I was the only person who could save her life. Grandfather would not rest before he had dealt her a final, deadly blow and nobody in the outside world knew what we had gone through for the last twenty years”.

“I handed over my diaries, in which I had written about the horror at home, year after year. Making them public, sharing them with a lawyer that I didn’t even know, was very hard. But for the sake of my mother, I would have done anything”.

During the trial, Kou took to the witness stand three times. She could hardly bear the image of her mother standing trial, and on the day of the verdict she didn’t show up. “My uncle went, while I was waiting at home with a knife. If she were to be sentenced to death, then so would I”.

By now, tears are running down Kou’s face. She says in a stifled voice that a thousand people have signed a petition of sympathy for her mother, such was her popularity.

The doctor is sentenced to a stay of execution, a measure which, according to Human Rights Watch, is applied in one in four murder cases. It means that she gets two years to successfully prove her mental rehabilitation, two long years during which death is constantly lurking around the corner. For if your behaviour is not judged satisfactory, the bullet is still waiting and in the best-case scenario, twenty years will still have to be spent behind bars.

“The worst thing is that the judge himself said to my uncle that he would have been inclined to pass a sentence of twelve years, the minimum penalty for murder. But the pressure which my grandfather exerted was too overwhelming.”

Finally, it took twenty-six months before Kou could meet her mother again. Two years and two months of silence: no letters or calls. “My uncle made me promise that I wouldn’t weep. He said it would destroy her and that I had to maintain my composure. During those first fifteen minutes we were given, we only talked about other people, about things that didn’t really matter”.

“It took months before we were able to bring up that dreaded day and the incident. My sweet, sweet Mum says she doesn’t regret it, the only thing that’s eating away at her is the fact that she made me unhappy and that I became the child of a criminal.

“It may seem odd, but I find it much harder to come to terms with her sentence than she does. She doesn’t deserve any punishment, her whole life has been utter penitence. She tries to convince me that she’s doing well. On weekdays, she works in the prison clinic and she teaches on Saturdays. “Nobody does me any harm here, believe me”, she said. “I’m being respected. Actually, I have a much better life than before, the only things that are lacking are you and freedom”.

Kou Wei’s mother has been behind bars for more than seven years now. She gets along very well with the prison authorities, to the extent that she can receive her daughter within the walls of her own cell, sometimes for over two hours. It’s not yet clear when she’ll be released. “Maybe in nine years’ time. She’ll be 62 by then”.

The luxury of a hotel
It’s Friday night and we’re going for dinner with some of the older girls in a Sichuan-style restaurant in Xi’an. The atmosphere is great, the food is terrific and the night is still young. The teenagers feel like going bowling, or at least to some cosy bar and they’re looking forward to the idea of spending the night in a hotel. With a television, that is, with an endless amount of channels, with mattresses into which they can sink deeply, and with unlimited amounts of boiling hot water. The next morning, they confess with small, sleepy eyes that they only got to sleep at four o’clock.

As a good host, the seventeen-year-old Zhang Xiangyu sorts out the most exquisite bits of food for us. She says she greatly admires journalists, reads every newspaper she can lay her hands on and definitely wants to become a writer later on. Or rather, she has already finished her first book on ten years spent in the Children’s Village. It’s currently being translated into English.

A few days before, the accountant of the centre spoke of her as a model child. She’s very bright and has quite well psychologically with the family drama, the woman said. According to her, Zhang’s father was a boozing and womanising ne’er-do-well who even kept on harassing her mother after they got divorced. During one of those unwanted visits, Zhang’s mother and brother conspired to kill him. The boy has since been released, his mother still has more years to serve. “My first and foremost hope”, says Zhang softly, “is that my book brings about more empathy”.

“The worst thing about a childhood spent in Children’s Village is not so much the absence of parents but rather the fact that you continually have to say goodbye to all those that you love. I told myself time and again that I wouldn’t care about people anymore, for when they leave, it’s as if a little part of you dies as well, and part of your life disappears”. Her friend Zhang Hao nods. “You never know how long a person will stay. If one or the other uncle or aunt gets it into his or her head to take you home, you have to obey”.

Even children that are unwilling to go back to violent or totally undesirable family situations are being physically forced to leave with their family members. “The only thing we can do”, says Sevenants, “is to try to stay in touch. We therefore teach them how to make a phone call and provide them with some pocket money so that they can call us if need be. But whether or not they manage to do so… Besides, legally we have absolutely no right to stick our noses into their lives once they’ve gone”.

Saturday afternoon. By the time we arrive at the centre, the oldest boys are busy preparing the wood for that evening’s bonfire and are quarrelling about the privilege of being the outdoor-DJ. A couple of teenage girls want to know if Auntie likes dancing. You see, they love to dance themselves, only they don’t really dare to.
Xiang Kepeng (16) has been given a special task. He has to make sure that the youngest kids don’t run around the fire too wildly and that they manage to get through the evening without any accidents. He says he feels honoured, which I can well imagine. For the boy is still in primary school, where the teachers consider him to be a lost case, and Zhang the accountant doesn’t appreciate him much either. A couple of days before, she pointed him out as an example of the ‘lost third’ and said that everyone was already happy that he had stopped wetting his sheets a couple of months ago. “But now we’re worried about the fact that he’s discovered cigarettes and alcohol”. I want to ask her what adolescent has never tried a drink or a cigarette, but Mrs Zhang doesn’t like to be disagreed with.

Xiang is a softly spoken, quiet young man who has lived here for six years and who dreams of a career in the army. He sees it as a matter of making himself useful for his country. “And I know”, he continues, “that my mother would be very proud of me”. The woman that is, who killed his father and who gets no other visitors than him, three or four times a year, each visit lasting no more than fifteen minutes. Her eldest son has of course tried to visit her, but as he doesn’t have any identity papers, he’s not allowed into the jail. “I know she’s innocent, she told me so and I believe her. She’d never lie to me. As soon as she gets out, I’ll take care of her. That’ll take at least another ten years but I’ll wait for her”.

The boy stares off into the distance while he talks about the drama that destroyed his family. “We used to be well off, my father was the village chief. He got along fine with my mother and my brother and I used to come home from school every weekend. We were a very happy family, believe me. I often wonder what could have happened that day but I don’t understand a thing. When I ask my mother, she says that we should let the past rest. Guoqu jiu guoqu ba. Let bygones be bygones.

“I remember it was the day before the start of the holidays. My mother had called the school, asking for us to come home straight away. I was nine, I understood that something serious had happened, otherwise we wouldn’t have been brought home in the school bus. To this day, I often dream about the moment we entered the house, the image of the room, my father’s dead, stiff body, my mum sobbing. Then the police came. They handcuffed her and dragged her along violently. That image still haunts me, after all these years it still numbs me.

Ten days later, my brother and I were allowed to visit her in the local district prison, where she was awaiting trial. She looked terrible. Her body was covered in bruises and there were many burn wounds on her hands and arms. No wonder she had confessed to her so-called crime. Later, we heard that my uncle from my father’s side had given money to the police. He wanted her to confess to the murder at all cost. We think he was after our house and our land”.

In the first year after the death of his father, Xiang lived with a relative. “It was absolutely terrible. We couldn’t go to school anymore, we had to toil from morning till evening and were barely fed. My brother ran away and later on I followed him. Finally, I got a place in this centre. At first, I was very much afraid but I didn’t cry. Boys don’t cry, do they?”

The bonfire is a big success. The kids have played and danced for hours on end. “This was the most beautiful night of my life”, says Guo Lin, when I take her and her friends to their bungalow around nine o’clock. She squeezes my hand softly and wants to know at what time we’ll arrive the next day.

Sunday, our last day in Children’s Village. Countless adventures of the Big Bad Wolf and stories based on Dutch kids’ songs until everyone is exhausted, and hours of drawing and making cards for the Chinese New Year.

When we get ready to leave after nine o’clock that evening, Guo Lin puts a card in my hand. “Don’t show anyone”, she says in a firm voice. “And don’t read it until you’ve reached your hotel room”. I made a card for her too, clumsily and artistically average, but sincere and well intentioned. She’s visibly happy with it and immediately puts it underneath her pillow. “Will you send me envelopes with your address on it?” she asks in a small voice, almost pleading. “I can’t write very well yet, but I’ll practise a lot, I promise. Then I’ll be able to write to you often”. All of a sudden, this strong-willed little girl of eight seems very fragile. “Don’t forget me, Auntie”.

While the other girls are still saying goodbye, Guo Lin goes straight to bed and turns her head to the wall. Auntie’s last goodbye remains unanswered.

In the hotel room, I get out the card. It says ‘I love you, Auntie, I want to stay with Auntie and play together. I think Auntie is super. Promise me that you’ll take good care of yourself, as I will, so that we’ll surely meet again’.

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