Not long ago, I set out to spend the day at an orphanage outside Beijing. Instead, I wound up picking strawberries with a former prison warden. The two are directly connected, which is something I never would have guessed. When the day was over, I had learned a lesson I expect I will encounter many times: just about everything in China today, in one way or another, comes down to business.
I discovered the Sun Village orphanage while researching reality television in China. The subject intrigued me for the simple reason that the government controls the airwaves; the concept of reality television alone seems to me an inherent liability the government would not likely risk. However in early March, news of a popular reality program made international headlines. Interviews Before Execution profiled men and women facing death in the months, weeks, days, even the hours and minutes before they died. For five years it was broadcast on the Legal TV Channel in central China’s Henan Province to huge ratings. An estimated 40 million people tuned in every Saturday to watch the program’s popular host, Ding Yu, interview inmates and their families.
According to reports, the Chinese government approved the show on the belief it would act as a deterrent to would-be criminals. In clips of a documentary made by the Beijing-based production house LIC, Ding interviewed, among others, a child-killer and a man who killed a mother and a child with an ax. As warned, I found the program difficult to watch. But it was fascinating to me for two reasons. First, that the government was willing to green-light a show that so directly addressed an issue it takes great pain to conceal: the death penalty. Second, that it allowed the condemned to speak freely. Ding played the role of critic, often harshly admonishing her subjects herself. Still, I wondered, in an audience of 40 million, wouldn’t watching the show at least raise the debate over the death penalty in more than one household?
In China, 55 crimes are punishable by death. The exact number of executions that takes place is a closely guarded state secret. Amnesty International publishes precise country-by-country figures on executions each year. It stopped including China in 2009 as a challenge to the government’s lack of transparency. The best estimate is in the thousands; I came across figures ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 per year. The government has said in the past that the real figure is far lower. Amnesty International questions why, if that is true, won’t it simply release the real figure?
I wanted to speak with Ding, but Legal TV told me she was unavailable for an interview. In trying to track her down, I came across a reference on a Chinese news website that mentioned she had visited the Sun Village orphanage as part of her research for her program. To call it an orphanage is technically incorrect. Sun Village is a home for the children of China’s incarcerated. Many, but not all, have a parent on death row. These children are not up for adoption. They are waiting for their parents to be released from prison so they can go home. In many cases this means they are waiting for a miracle. I thought if I found Sun Village I might find a lead to Ding.
I arrived at the Beijing Sun Village on a cold March morning. Our car turned down a dusty road not far from Beijing’s massive and very modern Capital International Airport. The shoulder of the road leading off the highway and into Sun Village was littered with the random detritus of outer Beijing; miscellaneous wrappers, empty plastic bottles, stray bits of tattered clothing. The compound consisted of several one-story buildings painted in primary colors, in front of which patches of sandy brown grass waited for spring.
Our car came to a stop in front of an administrative building. I couldn’t hear, or see, any children. We were met by a young man named Yen Jun. He would escort us to the director after a brief tour. Yen Jun appeared to me caught between adolescence and adult hood, wearing a tired, serious expression along with his baggy jeans. As we walked from building to building, he told us that he came to Sun Village when he was nine years old. He is now 18 and recently completed a course in car repair at a Beijing vocational school. His mother, he said, was still in prison. He did not want to talk about her crime or whether she was on death row and he made no mention of his father. Instead he simply told us he came back to Sun Village because he was welcome here, and because it is his home.
Sun Village accepts children from four months to 18 years old. We saw dormitories where the younger girls live with older girls, their bunk beds adorned with the kind of brightly patterned bedspreads easily found at very cheap prices in China’s many markets. Tattered stuffed animals peaking out of suitcases partly shoved under beds made the dorms feel transient; an illusion for many of the children. I was told that all children over the age of six attend local public school. The Monday we were there, over a dozen children who appeared to be well over six years old were noisily eating lunch, laughing over steaming plates of white rice and a large pot of noodles. Later, they played outside.
Finally, we met the head of the school, Zhang Shuqin, in her office. Immediately she motioned for us to follow her downstairs as she took a phone call. By the time we got out of the building and she hung up, in rapid Mandarin she explained that she wanted to show us the farm. The farm? I had no time to ask exactly what farm, or where it was, before I found myself in the back of a beat-up car driven by an assistant while Zhang took another phone call. We sped out of Sun Village, the laundry lines of children’s clothing getting a good dirt dusting in our wake.
On the way to the farm, Zhang managed to extract herself from her phone long enough to tell me she is 64 years old and had spent her career in the Bureau of Prison Administration. Her official bio in Sun Village materials states that she was a “newspaper editor” in the BPA, but she calls herself a former prison warden. She looks the part in that she is not slight of frame, carries herself briskly, and exudes an efficient air. There is kindness in her face, as when she smiled at our tour guide, Yen Jun, and made sure he told us about his recent course in car repair. He seemed shy with the attention and looked downward, but I caught the corners of a smile on his face.
Zhang explained that during the course of her career she met many desperate mothers convicted of a wide array of crimes. Seeing their children was the only thing that gave these women hope. “Some tried to escape, just to see their children,” she told me. That only increased their prison time.
In 1995, Zhang went to find the child of an inmate. Promotional video for Sun Village documents similar searches. In one, Zhang is seen peering in the doorway of abandoned homes. She discovers two brothers, by my best guess around six and eight years old, living on their own in a derelict building. In another scene, she meets an elderly man, presumably the grandfather, caring for a young child whose mother is in prison. In a third scene, she confronts a father who is in prison for committing a violent crime. Zhang is holding his child in front of her and angrily asks him, “Couldn’t you control your fists for the sake of your child?”
She tells me that China has many orphanages and the plight of abandoned children is well known. But the boys and girls she found were in, in some ways, an even more challenging situation. Yes, they had a parent. But that parent was in prison and often the families left behind were already too taxed to take on the care of additional children. These boys and girls were often ostracized and alone, and Zhang said she wanted to change that.
Her searches in 1995 led her to start Sun Village. Today, there are eight locations across China with more than 500 children residing. The organization either would not, or could not, provide numbers on how many children had a parent on death row. Zhang did tell me that it is their goal to reunite children with their mother or father. In part, she said, to give other children on the wait-list a spot. I wondered aloud, isn’t it hard to return a child to a mother or father who may or may not be a fit parent? Zhang did not miss a beat in telling me that many parents are successfully rehabilitated in prison, therefore she cannot worry about this. Her job is to focus on the next child to come through her door.
All of this information is dispensed in the car before we pull up to what I assume is the farm. Zhang bounds out of the front seat, I clamor behind her from the back. She takes another phone call, hangs up, and takes a deep breath.
“This,” she says proudly, “is our farm.” She makes an about-face and marches toward a low-slung cement building.
For the next two hours, I am dutifully escorted through several of the 52 cement block greenhouses on the property. Zhang, as it turns out, is in the fruit and vegetable business.
I duck inside the first building. It is a comfortably warm respite from the cold March air. Before me are rows and rows of shiny red strawberries. Zhang hands me a green basket and the strawberry picking begins. “Try one!” she says in Mandarin, motioning to her mouth. I hesitate. Strawberries this beautiful are not found in China, I am willing to bet, without the help of some dubious pesticides or worse. I ask if they are organic. “Too expensive to farm organic!” Zhang replies. “Eat!” I pop one in my mouth. It is delicious. I am shown rows of leafy green vegetables, potatoes, dates, even watermelon.
I pepper Zhang with questions on how much it costs to operate Sun Village and how much it cost her to buy the farm. She says her annual budget is 3 million renminbi (roughly $477,000). Each child costs, she says, 5,000 renminbi ($794) to support. The government gives her no money, but does allow her a significant discount on rent.
Where did she get the money to buy a 43-acre farm? I get numbers but no direct answer. She tells me it cost her 70,000 renminbi ($11,128) to buy the land in 2000. Over the years, Sun Village saved and put in 7 million renminbi ($1.11 million) to renovate and support her business plan. She started planting, she says, on August 25, 2011. She thinks by this August she will be able to repay all her loans, and make a small profit. In addition to the fruits and vegetables, which of course she uses to feed the children as well, the farm has a small restaurant serving delicious (to this I can attest) food for very good prices. Zhang envisions local Beijingers and foreigners will soon spend the day with their families picking fruits and vegetables and having lunch, all for a small entrance fee. Soon, she will build a guest house as well. “I will charge only 100 renminbi [$15] to spend the night!” she says.
She tells me this with such an efficient and capable air that I am nearly convinced I could do the same thing if I just put my mind to it. I realize that Zhang just may be one of the first pioneers in nonprofit tourism in China.
During our strawberry picking and lunch on the farm, I lose count of how many phone calls Zhang takes. At one point we are joined by a marketing team she has asked to meet with her to discuss a fundraiser. An assistant tells me they hope celebrities in China will donate personal items for auction. I ask about international donations. Zhang tells me that the queen of Sweden, Silvia Renate Sommerlath, donated 1 million renminbi ($158,000) between 2007 and 2008. Other than that, she says, it is difficult to encourage donation for the children of convicts in China. It happens, but not enough so that she does not worry. Business, she says, is a much safer bet.
At the beginning of our meeting, I had asked Zhang if she knew of Ding Yu, the popular host of Interviews Before Execution. She tells me she does not but I am unconvinced. I think if a famous television host came to a Sun Village, Zhang would be the first to hear of it. But I don’t push. Something tells me that you don’t want to push Zhang.
I leave Sun Village without a lead on Ding. But I now have a unique view on China’s death penalty; children in flux, hundreds of them parentless but for the business savvy of a former prison warden turned businesswoman they call “Nye Nye Zhang.” In English, it means “Grandma Zhang.”