A home on the Internet shelters Beijing's homeless

Posted in China | 05-Mar-09 | Author: Jonathan Ansfield| Source: International Herald Tribune

Ben Jilian lives in a shelter for transients.

BEIJING: South of Tiananmen Square, mazelike neighborhoods are being bulldozed and grand shopping promenades erected, but homeless people keep resurfacing.

Hundreds roam the area, most of them migrants from the countryside, whose chances of escaping their predicament have dimmed with the faltering economy. Many of the migrants are elderly or disabled people who came here after their relatives left their villages in search of jobs along the coast. Others are petitioning for redress for a host of alleged wrongs, including the seizure of land for development.

All of them are drawn to this historic area around Qianmen, an ancient gate from the wall that surrounded imperial Beijing. They come for the tourists, peddling maps and flags and scavenging for bottles and cans that can be reclaimed as scrap.

The police and official city management squads conduct regular sweeps to chase the vagrants out. They crack down especially hard in periods like this week, when annual parliamentary sessions are getting under way at the Great Hall of the People.

But after each raid, people creep back into pedestrian tunnels and covered walkways to sleep.

Now, for once, modernity has come to the aid of the homeless people of Qianmen in the somewhat unlikely figure of Zhang Shihe. Zhang, a 55-year-old blogger, is a marketing expert by day, good Samaritan by night.

For the last year and a half, he has used the Internet to raise awareness of the plight of the neighborhood's homeless.

Zhang was already an online folk hero when he took up their cause; he started blogging five years ago to publicize injustices he witnessed on Beijing's back streets or on treks into China's impoverished countryside. Netizens know him as Laohu Miao, or Tiger Temple. But the transients in Tiananmen Square call him Journalist Zhang.

"There are times when I think: We are helping vagrants change their form of living, yet they do not know what we're doing online," Zhang wrote in January on his blog, 24 Hours Online. "That alone manifests a certain injustice."

Zhang began his campaign for the homeless in late 2007, after he peeked behind a wall screening a demolished block of homes and found 32 squatters.

The group, mostly men, lived in knee-high sleeping compartments, assembled from the rubble, that they called the Stars Hotel. Zhang befriended them and began cranking out multimedia posts about the group, which he named the drifter tribe.

When the authorities demolished the Stars Hotel last winter, Zhang drew from his modest $600-a-month salary to buy the vagrants quilts and coats. As this winter approached, he decided to try for a longer-term fix.

He enlisted help from 10 Web-savvy volunteers and began soliciting donations on his blog. Online collection drives for the victims of an earthquake last year in Sichuan Province had been wildly successful. But Zhang worried that people might be reluctant to give to the homeless, especially after years of reports in the Chinese news media of organized begging rings that exploited children.

He credits the transparency of his blog ? he documents donations as they come in ? for the stream of small contributions he has received. A few donors offered jobs; others sent clothing, bedding, furniture, even items for peddling. Cash donations have topped $4,000, enough to rent a row of rooms with stone floors in a building that resembles an army barracks.

A member of the drifter tribe ? the 47-year-old Wang Yuhai, who struggles with a bad leg from a childhood accident ? acts as informal director of the makeshift shelter, where 24 can squeeze in. He has brought in most of the residents.

One of those he rescued is Zhang Xianping, a 26-year-old man paralyzed from the waist down who has no relation to the blogger. The young man said his brother and sister, who cared for him, had left their home in the mountains of Guizhou for work in factories far away.

Despondent, he traveled to Tiananmen Square, planning to catch a glimpse of it before he committed suicide. Then he met Wang, who coaxed him back to the shelter. Now he sells books and wind-up toys on the streets.

"Here, life is bitter, but it's more fulfilling," he said. "As long as I can do something, I'll be all right."

Zhang the blogger said Web censors had deleted some of his posts on other delicate issues he had addressed, but he had tried to tone down his criticisms of the treatment of the homeless to avoid further confrontations.

"The Communist Party really doesn't like it when the things it's not doing, other people are doing well," he said.

The national government, in fact, has made provisions to help the homeless. In 2003, the government abolished a network of abuse-ridden camps where vagrants could be legally detained and replaced them with "relief stations" that provided short-term room and board and tickets home to those who requested them.

The authorities, however, were given leeway to force vagrants with "no capacity or with limited capacity for civil conduct" into the shelters. But many homeless people avoid the relief stations, saying they believe the main goal is to ship them home.

In a survey of the stations in the capital completed in 2006, Li Yingsheng, a sociologist at Renmin University in Beijing, found that 20 percent of the migrants said they were there involuntarily.

The local government department in charge of city shelters declined an interview, saying its policies were under revision.

In June, when the authorities whisked many of the drifter tribe members to a shelter 30 miles from the city in a pre-Olympics purge, Zhang got a call to retrieve an elderly man who had listed him as a friend. But when Zhang arrived, he said, the officials denied calling him. He fumed about the episode online, demanding, "When will you free people?" Some of the tribe members said they were not released until mid-September.

Most recently, the present tribe of 24 took a turn at online advocacy. The members posted a letter on behalf of one volunteer, Liu Xiaoyuan, a civil rights lawyer, whose firm is battling an official suspension order that it contends is politically motivated.

But Zhang keeps his residents focused on the goal of sustainability. Instead of encouraging the hawkers to leave the streets, for instance, the volunteers are buying them carts so they can sell more goods.

And on a recent visit to the group's shelter, Zhang cut short a man who wanted the donors' help underwriting a compensation claim. Zhang patiently explained that donors had not pledged to finance petitioners' battles with the government, but rather to just help them survive.