Letter 30, April 2005
First, let me tell you the story of a real miracle in Zhang Jia Shu, Ma Yans native village. We had already mentioned the operation on a small boy with a congenital deformity of his feet, paid for at one of our members initiative, in a previous newsletter. Hélène had taken pictures of the boys feet last summer, and shown them to specialists in France; they thought that a successful operation was possible, and she collected the 700 euros required for it amongst her acquaintance. The operation took place in February. There was a perfect chain of solidarity to make it go smoothly; the Association contributed logistical support, and Bai Juhua, Ma Yans mother, helped the child and his mother to travel from their home to the hospital in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia.
At the beginning of April, I travelled to Zhang Jia Shu and could see how successful the operation was. This child, who had until then been obliged to walk on the outer sides of his feet in a waddling, duck-like manner, is now wearing shoes and walking on the soles of his feet. He still has some minor problems with his right foot, which will be corrected in the hospital; but one only has to see the joy of this little boy who is now like the others, and most of all the unlimited joy of his parents, poor Ningxia peasants, to understand the positive effects of this operation. For this moneyless family such an operation seemed impossible; healthcare nowadays has to be paid for in China and is therefore unaffordable for more than half of Chinas 800 million peasants. Seven hundred euros to change a life - that is certainly worth it!
It was originally not the mandate of the Association to take care of medical problems, and indeed this would be an immense task far surpassing the means of our small association. But in this case, just as much as in another case also mentioned to you in an earlier letter, where the mother of one of our grant recipients had an operation paid for by a group of UK students, it would have seemed absurd just to let the children go to school but then allow medical problems to plunge their families into misery. So the idea of a healthcare fund is taking shape; but we have to proceed with caution, to avoid raising expectations which we cannot meet.
This brief trip to Ningxia at the beginning of April also allowed me to consider the question of school fees. In the previous newsletter I reported on a recent official announcement that the school fees would be abolished for the children of the poorest families during their nine years of compulsory school education. Without being able to speak for the whole of China, I can now confirm that at least in that district of Ningxia in which we operate, this abolition of fees has been implemented in the second semester of 2005. This is excellent news and exactly what we were fervently hoping to happen for the poor families receiving help from us. And we can be proud of having made a modest contribution, by the publication of Ma Yans Journal, to the now increasingly vibrant debate about the dangerous gap that has opened up between the richest and the poorest in China, in the course of a decade which saw rapid overall growth. This debate has been the prelude to the recent official decision on school fees that immediately concerns us here.
For grants paid to our students starting in March, the directors of the schools we are supporting have indicated that we can reduce the amount. During the discussions we had in April, we were able to ascertain that the primary and middle schools now only require the costs of food and boarding, which still affect the vast majority of students coming from villages too far away for them to go back and forth every day.
We therefore decided, with the consent of our local partners, to modify the way in which we provide support: the Association will henceforth pay for the boarding for ALL of the boarding students at the middle schools we support, at Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang, which means a good one thousand students in total. The sum to be paid is reasonable: 60 Yuan RMB (about 6 Euros) per semester. And we will continue paying out grants, reduced by half, in order to ensure that the living expenses of those students whom we were helping already are covered. What remains unchanged is the grants for the Senior high school students, who continue to have to pay school fees and boarding fees, as well as of course our commitment to pay the fees for university students who will no doubt emerge from amongst the peasant girls whom we are now supporting.
The overall financial commitments of the Association will only be slightly increased compared to what they are now by this change; but the impact of our support will be so much greater, since it will now benefit all the students of the institutions supported by us. We are of course delighted about this development, which is going just in the direction we wanted things to go, and which helps us to make our support less of a privilege available only to a few, and turn it into a more comprehensive effort to give better chances to these children from disadvantaged and excluded families.
We have also just equipped the two middle schools receiving support from us, in Yuwang and Ma Gao Zhuang, with 80 more computers. Yuwang High school had already got 50 computers last autumn, but given the number of students there, this one computer room soon appeared insufficient. Now the college will have a second computer room. Also, at the request of the director of Ma Gao Zhuang High school, we will pay to have school uniforms made for his 450 students. We could see for ourselves how the uniforms and the computers gave the students of Yuwang middle school, who are at the bottom of the social ladder in China, a new kind of pride. It is enough just to go into a village on a Sunday, and see how the students keep wearing their uniform overalls bearing the name of their school.
Donations from the public, which remain important, as well as that portion of the royalties for the two books which has been devoted to the Association, will allow us to continue with this important project of providing the necessary equipment. But we must not limit our fundraising activities to this, and support from any available sources is vital. Several initiatives have been started in France and abroad to collect funds for the Association: we will report on some of these in a future newsletter.
One last point: it has now been a bit more than three years since we started our action of solidarity just after the publication of the first article on Ma Yans Diary in Libération, and before the subsequent publication of the book. For the sake of transparency and efficiency, it seemed important to us to have an audit. A young Frenchwoman who works as a consultant in Beijing has agreed to conduct an independent audit for free, and to indicate some avenues for future improvements in our work. She travelled to Ningxia at the beginning of April; and her assessment will be passed on to you for the purpose of information and debate. In the meantime, many thanks for your faithful continued support of the children of Ningxia.