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Why China Can't Just Make Its Child Beggars Disappear

Recent vows by Beijing to eliminate child begging by next year show that though Chinese may care about society's most vulnerable, they don’t yet know how to really help them.

Children on the streets of Beijing, China
Children on the streets of Beijing, China
Zhang Xiuzhi

BEIJING - Among the many approaches to beggars over the centuries, French poet Charles Baudelaire held a most peculiar slant. In his essay "Beat the Poor" ("Assommons les pauvres!"), the Parisian writer describes how he'd handle old beggars who held out their hands for alms: he would simply sock them with a punch. And before the old man was able to get his bearings, the same fist would arrive again.

After being hit several times, the old beggar's eyes would start to glitter with ferocious light. Then he'd punch back. In taking the counter-punch, not only did the poet not feel angry, but actually felt comforted because he believed he had reached his goal: to have restored the self-esteem of the beggar.

Begging in human society, however, is not just a question of self-esteem. Baudelaire seemed to have reduced the elimination of panhandling to a few punches. It is both too peculiar and too simple. Nonetheless, it isn't just the poet who tries to solve complicated social issues with simple-minded approaches.

A few days back, the Ministry of Public Security cracked down on two child trafficking gangs across 10 provinces, arresting 608 suspects and rescuing 178 children.

The responsible officials immediately announced that a "zero tolerance" policy towards child trafficking would be implemented. The Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Public Security will work together to send the child beggars home. By the end of next year, they predict, the phenomenon of children begging on the streets will have totally disappeared.

It must be said that in recent years, the Ministry of Public Security has worked closely with the public in their crack down on child trafficking crimes. Microblogging has also played a role in facilitating the interaction between the public and the police. This also helped give an open and transparent image to the Public Security Bureau.

However, the promise of setting a timetable to eliminate child begging seems to oversimplify the problem, and raise some serious doubts.

The street children begging problem involves multiple factors including the law, society and morality. From the legal point of view, there is no absolute prohibition of child begging. In the Chinese criminal code, there is the premise of a crime only if someone is "organizing disabled people or minors under the age of 14, by violence or coercion."

Victims of the mob...and family

Similarly, China's compulsory education law does not explicitly ban the practice of child begging. All the law stipulates is that all children six years old and older should be enrolled for the prescribed number of years of compulsory education. "Local government is to take effective measures to order school-aged children or teenagers to be enrolled in school…" In other words, if the child hasn't actually delayed his schooling, even if he goes begging, he does not violate the law.

According to studies, the current phenomenon of street children is varied in nature and complex in its causes. Some are the result of organized child trafficking, while others are linked to family abuse, poverty or the illness of family members. The former is a reflection of the criminal hold on today's underclass as China's society undergoes a major transformation. The latter is more widely related to the country's economic and social policies.

Under the current circumstances, the public has reason to fear that before a sound welfare and distribution system is established, even if the public authority cleared up the streets in one clean sweep, it would not radically improve the living conditions of those at the bottom of society -- and the phenomenon of child begging would no doubt remain. This is the very reason that the declaration of a timetable for making street children disappear has no real standing.

Of course, eliminating organized criminal rings of child begging is a legitimate exercise of public authority. It is not difficult to combat these practices since begging is always out in the open.

Secondly, we must exhaust all existing resources for the remedies. Are the publicly-run charitable organizations using taxpayers' money as wisely and effectively as possible? Are they spending the money in the right places? Is there a transparent system for assessing the programs?

The social relief channels must be loosened up. There is no lack of good intention in Chinese society, but there is a lack of effective oversight to ensure the best programs are supported.

And finally, the most reliable and far-reaching way to eliminate child begging is to establish fair and equitable social policies and the institutional good exercise of public power.

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