THE ONE MAN SALVATION ARMY OF BEIJING
With his popular blog, Zhang Shihe has rescued a group of homeless in Beijing from sleeping on cardboard among the rats of the city. 'Chinese people are better than their government'.
Photos and Text: Remko Tanis
in Beijing, China
It's been six months since Wang Yun Hai (47) moved from a cardboard box to a concrete shed. “Follow me!” he shouts, steering his tricycle down Little South Alley towards his home in Daxing.
Daxing is a suburb about a one hour car ride south from downtown Beijing. The centuries old temples and palaces of the Chinese capital seem much further away than that. Daxing is nothing but a grid of dusty roads, over crowded with mopeds.
Wang turns away from the road and rides down a sandy path. The many holes in the surface test his bike to its limits. At the end of the stretch of sand, he gets off his bike and walks to his front -and only- door.
Each of his steps is marked by the sound of his wooden right leg hitting the ground. He lost the original limb as a child in a traffic accident. Wang unlocks the door and swings it open: “Welcome!”
Eight square meters is all there is behind the door. Wang's bed sits against one wall, a brown cabinet and a chair against another. Across from the chair are a cement dust covered, old Changhong television set, a fan and a small table with an electric stove. A tiny pan filled with green beans sits on the floor.
Like most Chinese, Wang counts a cell phone and a pack of cigarettes among his possessions. But in his case, that's all there is. “Whatever else you see in here was donated to me,” he explains. “Even the rent is paid for by others.”
Wang came to Daxing because he and his cardboard box were chased out of Beijing. He had moved to the capital city from Hebei province little over two years ago. “Back home I couldn't make a living,” he says while rolling up the right sleeve of his pants. “With just one leg, I couldn't work the fields. A few times I was giving a short term job as a guard at a fruit farm, but usually I was without work.”
To provide for his three daughters, Wang moved to Beijing, only to discover that in the city there was no demand for a crippled migrant. “That's when I started collecting plastic bottles from tourists in Tiananmen Square. Occasionally, I'd also sell them little Chinese flags or maps of the city.”
Wang made around eight yuan a day doing this, too little to support himself, let alone his daughters back in Hebei. “I joined other homeless people who had a hidden place behind a wall right next to Tiananmen Square. We shared a space of about five square meters and slept on cardboard boxes. We buried the money we made. Sometimes the rats would run away with it.”
Being so close to the heart of Beijing, the group of homeless were often chased away by guards. Wang: “More than once, these guards would steal our warm clothes, blankets and our rice bowls. Once they even took our money. They stole seventy yuan from me, but a friend of mine had to give up ten times as much. When we went to the police to report this, officers told us it was none of their business. The authorities don't care about the homeless.”
In block 33 of a residential compound right next to the Olympic stadium in Beijing, Zhang Shihe's laptop hums day and night. The 55-year old former advertising professional does care about the fate of the homeless of Tiananmen exactly because, as he sees it, the government does not.
Through his popular blog, which he runs from the laptop on the little brown table next to his bed, he raises money from people throughout China.
“It was pure coincidence I ran into the homeless group behind their wall near Tiananmen Square,” Zhang says. “I felt bad for the situation they were in and decided to stay involved.”
The homeless are part of a group that caught Zhang's attention before: people with problems who are being ignored by their local governments.
A lot of the homeless in Beijing find themselves in that situation not because of gambling debts or addictions. Instead, many of them traveled to Beijing in a desperate final attempt to appeal to the central government to help them, after fruitless appeals to local authorities in their hometowns.
Many of them are farmers whose land was grabbed from them by local officials to sell to real estate developers. Lodging an official complaint with the central government is a final resort. The appeals are seldom successful. Instead of going back, many choose to stay homeless in Beijing. To them, it’s better than the now destroyed life that awaits them in their hometown.
“I like looking for people in trouble.”
Zhang -medium long, dyed black hair and wearing brown shorts, a white t-shirt and plastic flip flops- has been traveling China for over two years now, talking to people who ran into trouble with local governments. He browses his blog '24 Hours Online' in his one bedroom apartment. The boarding pass of his last journey lies in the cigarette butt filled ashtray on the table.
“It has always been something I liked to do in my spare time,” he says. “I like looking for people in trouble and publishing their stories. Now that I've quit working, I can do this full time. On my own, my powers are limited. But as soon as I post things online, these stories become something much bigger. It's how I can speak out, something Chinese can never really do any other way.”
Last December he published his first post about the homeless of Tiananmen. “Here is this spectacular square, but just one block away people live in cardboard boxes. I could not accept that and decided more people should know about this contrast.”
The effect of that first post was huge. “No one who read it needed further convincing about how these people needed help even though the government refuses to give it to them. From all over China donations flooded my way: money, clothes, blankets. Within a month, there was enough money to rent six small homes in Daxing, where twenty of the homeless are currently living. Rent is only 140 yuan a month. At the moment, the donations can cover that until the end of 2010.”
A text message comes in on Zhang's phone. “It's from a university student,” he says, while typing a reply. “He lets me know he's been reading my site and pledges to donate ten yuan a month. You see how the money comes from all kinds of people.”
Zhang is happy to be able to provide twenty homeless people with a modest but stable roof over their heads for now. He raises his voice: “It feels good, but let me be absolutely clear. My site is nothing else than harsh criticism towards the government. The authorities should be responsible for providing shelter to the homeless. Our government refuses to step up and help the needy.”
In 2003 China introduced its first law concerning care for homeless people. The law came after a homeless man in the country's south had been beaten to death by police for refusing to return to his hometown.
Zhang: “Still, no one cares about this law. All the law did was create yet another government agency with ever more shiny new buildings filled with people who needed to be given jobs.”
“The only time Beijing provides some sort of shelter for the homeless, is when the city needs to look good. During the annual session of the National People's Congress in spring, for example. People are picked up from the streets and locked up in these shelters. They cannot leave and the food they get is, well, it's too lousy to even be called food.”
The law also calls on citizens to help out the homeless. Zhang: “So that is what we are doing now. We are showing the authorities that we, the people, are better than they are.”
In Daxing, Wang gets out of his concrete shed and walks over to his neighbors, all of whom live here thanks to donations through Zhang's weblog. The oldest of Wang's neighbors is 78, the youngest 27. Together, their six concrete sheds are covered with corrugated roofs.
A coat of their common enemy hangs over a laundry line: part of the uniform of the city's guards. A badge on its sleeve reads 'Beijing Security'. “Found that somewhere,” Wang winks.
He starts to cook the green beans. Tomorrow morning at 04.30h he'll jump on the bus to Tiananmen Square again, to collect plastic bottles and sell little flags. He now makes enough to send two hundred yuan a month to his daughters in Hebei province.
Wang: “I get this warm feeling when I look around my home and realize everything has been donated by strangers. I really hope the Chinese government will come to see it needs to care for the disabled and homeless in this country. Only then will I be able to return home. I mean, honestly, look at this place. This is not how people are supposed to live.”