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A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents can not afford.


7 juillet 2003 1 07 /07 /juillet /2003 00:00
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Letter 17 - summer 2003

Dear All
The Association for the Children of Ningxia’s General Assembly took place on 28 June in Paris, doubtless not the best date in terms of bringing a maximum number of people together, as it was just on the eve of the summer vacation, but the only possible date during the time of my return to France from Beijing. About twenty people turned up, nevertheless. The meeting allowed us to decide on certain aspects of the initiative, to provide an account of our activities at present, as well as to get to know some of those who had joined us since the time of the previous General Assembly last October. In the attachment you will find certain documents distributed during this reunion : the financial statement, the list of current bursary recipients, and a letter from one of our bursary recipients in Ningxia.
FINANCES. Our financial statement testifies to the caution with which we have taken on commitments in the context of this initiative, while not knowing for sure if our numbers were not going to dwindle after a certain time. We have therefore limited the number of bursary recipients in order to avoid the risk of having to disappoint them once our financial resources started to dry up.
As a result we now have a good school year’s advance money in the bank, despite 42 bursary holders, for the number of people contributing to the Association with varying sums has risen from 25 to 250 between October and June...The Association will also receive a fraction of the royalties in The Diary of Ma Yan. So we may take an even brighter look into the future, and plan to develop our initiative accordingly.
The only small discussion during the General Assembly arose around the administrative costs of the Association. One supporter had particularly complained about the costs of postage of the monthly newsletter for those who did not receive it via email because they had no email address. Given that together with bank charges (arising with regard to the maintenance of the account as well as to international bank transfer orders), the charges for postage are the only administrative costs arising to the Association, which does not have to pay any rent or salaries and which up until now has never paid for the trips made to Ningxia, it did not appear to us that these costs were inappropriate. It remains up to those who can and wish to do so, to send us a booklet of stamps to cover for the postage of their newsletters...
The General Assembly re-elected Michèle Fitoussi as its President and me as treasurer. Also, a board was instituted under the direction of Emmanuelle Polack, who is its General Secretary. Those who were unable to attend the General Assembly and who wish to participate in the activities of the board are still most welcome to do so.
ACTION. As indicated in the last newsletter, the SARS outbreak, which has now been officially declared to be under control by the WHO, considerably disrupted our activities. Nevertheless, the return of September should bring an opportunity to launch a number of projects, among them an increase of the number of bursary recipients. We will be able to assure the equipment of a computer room at the School of Yuwang, as we promised to do for the school director last February. Six computers have been offered by the Beijing Lycée français, and 14 more will be donated by the Association from its own funds. It will perhaps be possible to provide for internet access from the computers, which would make it a lot easier to communicate with teachers and students at the School.
We are also pushing for equipment for the School’s library, to which we already provided dictionaries and encyclopedias as well as a stack of cartoons in Chinese (Tintin, Lucky Luke, etc) which were donated by a German student living in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia. And finally, too, we are going to install five solar cells which were offered by a Chinese company thanks to the intervention of a Frenchman working in this company, which is based in Nanjing. Some ways of beginning to make some significant changes to the lives of the students, and to offer them somewhat better chances for their school education and putting them in a more equal position vis-à-vis the children in urban areas.
WELLS. At the General Assembly it was announced that our Association had won a prize, jointly with the publishers Nathan, from the company Procter and Gamble France, which in the context of a corporate commitment to promote sustainable development (which is in fashion...), offered two prizes for projects of charitable associations. One of them will go to a project for building a school in Afghanistan by Care France, and the other to the construction of a well in Zhang Jia Shu in Ningxia by our Association. The prize in the amount of 15.000 Euros will only be paid out next year, when student volunteers have begun the with the work as part of their ‘discovery’ classes at school.
Those who wish to find out more about this can contact Emmanuelle Polack, who is a member of the Association’s office which, together with the publishers Nathan, is in charge of this project. Emmanuelle has created a pedagogical project about the development problems in Ningxia. She can be contacted via email : emmanuelle.polack@ort.asso.fr or by mail, using the address of the Association.
Thus the construction of the wells, which we have been envisaging since the first days of the Association, could be become a reality perhaps as early as next year. There was a debate during the General Assembly about associating ourselves with an American multinational, but it did not appear to us as though we would be selling our souls to the “devil” by accepting funding, considering the conditions in which we are operating.
COPRESPONDENCE. We will try, on our return, to put a system of correspondence between bursary recipients in Ningxia and families who wish this in place. This is not easy for it appears that an enormous amount of translation would have to be done. Any volunteers are most welcome. In the meantime we hope that those who have expressed a desire to set up a correspondence with a child whom we are helping will excuse us, and have patience....
INITIATIVES. Among the initiatives of which we have given an account during the General Assembly, note the operation ‘rice bowl’ spearheaded by Emmanuelle’s (seven-year-old !) daughter who, in her Parisian school, convinved the school administration and her classmates to replace lunch was replaced with a bowl of rice and an apple on one day, and that the costs thus saved were donated to our Association. Thus, we received a cheque for over 607 Euros...
Another school, the College Montgolfier in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris, dedicated the profits of the sale of an issue of its school magazine to our Association, and sent us 60 Euros. And finally, an association of French residents in Shanghai, ‘With Full Hands’, launched an appeal among its members to help the Children of Ningxia, and collected 6000 Yuan. Our thanks go to all the people who have helped here.
By the way, Ma Yan’s Diary came out in Italian recently (Il Diario di Ma Yan, Sperling & Kupfer Editori) and we have received financial contributions from some Italian friends, one of which was from an Italian teacher and several of his students, who put 125 Euros in an envelope...
So this is our latest news on the General Assembly and the Association as a whole. Nice holidays to everyone, and see you again at the return of the school year, which promises to be full of events.
Best wishes

Pierre Haski


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7 mai 2003 3 07 /05 /mai /2003 00:00
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Letter 15 - May 2003

The SARS nightmare is in the process of abating, allowing us to envisage a return to normality in the next few weeks. Hongkong and Canton have already received the green light from the World Health Organisation (WHO), while Beijing, after more than a month of the epidemic, is registering a decrease in the number of new cases and can foresee its ‘liberation’ by the WHO in a few weeks. The rest of the country remains uncertain : the much debated contamination of the countryside does not seem to have occurred on a great scale, but the state of the rural health system being what it is, caution is still required.
What is certain is that the whole country has been touched by psychosis and the fear of the virus, that the preventive measures have involved the closure of public institutions everywhere, including schools, as well as the isolation of villages and small towns. Ningxia was no exception, and the School of Yuwang was closed for more than two weeks and the children sent back home as a preventive measure. Our friends in Ningxia were as worried about us in Beijing as we were about them... To be sure, if the epidemic reached this region where our activity takes place, it only appeared briefly, at a time when security was already in place, as opposed to what happened here in Beijing.
We received a lot of mail from the bursary holders of the Association expressing concern regarding our health in Beijing. We also received a very kind letter from Ma Yan which we quote below in full :
“Dear Uncle and Aunt (my assistant He Yanping and myself),
Hello, how is your health, does your work proceed well, we think about you very often, we worry about you, and hope that you take care of your health.
I have seen that the war in Iraq has just ended, the torments of the Iraqi people are over. Just when one stops hearing about that war, a phantom called ‘atypical pneumonia’ [SARS]arrives on the scene. A few days ago, I was not afraid of it, and I did not know much about it, but since the holiday on the 1st of May, I have been following the daily news closely, and I saw that everybody was wearing masks. It was only then that I grasped the seriousness of the SARS outbreak. I hope, Uncle and Aunt, that you are very careful when travelling, especially when you travel for reporting purposes.
On TV they explained the ways in which you can combat SARS, and they explained that on no account must one be afraid of it, that we can beat it. But I have heard that in a village close to here one man caught the pneumonia, and that he was taken by his family to the hospital to be treated. I am scared. SARS really does spread too quickly ! Before I thought that it was only in the big cities, the places where there is a high population density, that SARS could spread ; I did not think that it could appear in remote little villages, I am really very frightened. But I think that mankind will beat SARS, that one day we will be rid of it.
Uncle and Aunt, I hope that you take good care of your health, that you do not worry, especially about us, we are all well for the time being. I got good results at the mid-term exams, please be reassured.
I hope there will be many flowers for the start of the season, that you are both cheerful. Among the four seasons it’s spring that counts the most ! I hope you are rejuvenated day by day. I wish you good health, and that your work goes well.
Ma Yan
4th May 2003.”
After this letter we spoke to Ma Yan’s mother on the phone and we set their minds at rest. The fact that the High School was able to open its doors again a few days ago is the sign of a gradual return to normality.
Xiao Mei, a bursary holder of the Association, also wrote to us a few days earlier in the same spirit. “The last time I phoned you, you asked me if I had any news of the pneumonia. At the time I replied : I know that it definitely hasn’t reached here. You immediately laughed. That laughter was very pleasant to hear.
“Since then, the population here panicked because of the pneumonia. People do not dare go to the hospital, students do not dare to cough during lessons, one goes red in the face with the effort of holding it back, because the teacher said that if anyone has a dry cough he must go back home to get well, and wait till he stops coughing before attending lessons again. And now we are ‘on vacation’ but no-one knows what this vacation is any more !
“I tried to taste the medicine. The first time I was in tears, and I was very unwilling to swallow it. Until then, I had never taken plant-based medicine, I really wanted to throw up, but mum ordered me not to disobey. My mother, who loves us, is worried that we will catch SARS. She spent so much money to buy medicines, that if we don’t take them it would be like ignoring all that she does for love of us.”
Besides the epidemic, the social difficulties of the poorest people have obviously not disappeared, because though the government has declared that treatment for SARS will be free, the same does not apply to other illnesses. Xiao Mei explains in her letter that, having lost her father last year, she now worries about her mother’s health. She writes :
“Yesterday, because she was not feeling well, my mother went for a check-up at the Doctor Li’s, she might have caught hepatitis. I am very frightened of losing my mother as well : for my dad’s treatment we have already borrowed 10,000 Yuan (1,200 euros), and because of her illness, mum is always taking medicine. I am scared that we will lose her forever. What should I do ? How should I act ? I really do not know. Who can explain ? Why do I have to live through the loss of my parents year in year out ? Why ?
“And I am sorry, but I haven’t done well in my mid-term exams. I got 88 in Chinese, 79 in Maths, 77 in Physics, 63 in English. I am really very sorry, I know that it is not enough to apologise, that you will be disappointed. But I hope that you will give me another chance. Now I am making an effort to improve, I am studying a lot in order to do well in the final exams. It is not only to deserve your help. It is also for love of Mum and for the teacher’s dedication.”
This letter, like many others which we receive almost daily, illustrates the extremely difficult situation of the region. The SARS reveals all the problems, as we explained in the last letter. Even though one hopes that it will motivate a change of governmental politics vis-à-vis the least favoured regions and populations, one must not put one’s hopes up too much... Our activity, modest though it is, must go on. And we hope to resume it as soon as possible.
Pierre Haski.

P.S. The Diary of Ma Yan is now in the bookstores in the Netherlands and Italy. And at the end of the year it will be published also in China itself. Many Chinese publishers have shown an interest, and we have entered into an agreement with one of them who seemed to offer the most serious guarantees.



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7 avril 2003 1 07 /04 /avril /2003 00:00
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Letter 14 - April 2003

This will be an unusual letter because of the exceptional current circumstances in China due to the SARS virus epidemic. First of all, the news from Ningxia : until now the epidemic has spread only to the provincial capital, Yinchuan, where five confirmed and five suspect cases have been officially reported, all cases consisting of passengers on a train from Beijing. Our friends have called us from their village in the south of Ningxia because they are worried about us in Beijing.
Apparently there is no sign yet of the epidemic in their area : one of the (rare) advantages of being cut off from the large exchange centres ...
Having said that, this epidemic has considerably paralysed our activity, with the exception of the bursaries, which are following their normal course. All activities of solidarity which we undertook have been put on hold pending better days. The French schools of Beijing and Hongkong which planned to act in order to help the School in Yuwang, have been closed for several weeks, and, at best, will not get back to their normal rythm before the start of the new academic year in September.
Also, the Hermes sales in Beijing, which were to benefit our Association, which should have taken place this month, have been postponed to the summer, and, without doubt, beyond. Travel within the country is also strongly advised against, in order not to risk contributing to the diffusion of the virus. This does not prevent the attainment of any of our aims but delays the project for the provision of equipment to the School in the form of books and computers. This will be partly postponed.
Nevertheless one cannot fail to talk about this epidemic, the manner in which it is managed by the Chinese authorities and the lessons to be learnt from it. As is sufficiently known today, the government has played down and tried to conceal the epidemic, which originated last November in the province of Canton, before reaching Hong-Kong and then the rest of the world, and before spreading, in the absence of preventive measures, to the other parts of China, starting with Beijing, where it rages today. The Government eventually recognised its own failures and took some more energetic measures after a few days.
At the time of writing, Beijing is a dead city, as if hit by a nuclear explosion. The roads and shops are empty ; everybody is shut inside their homes in fear, with stocks of food. Thousands of people have been quarantined, a large number of which are in two of the city’s hospitals that have been closed due to contamination of medical personnel. The number of confirmed cases goes up by a hundred a day in Beijing, and much less raoidly in the country. The epidemic is far from having reached its peak and from being contained.
That said, the panic of Beijing’s population is due not so much to the virus itself, but more to the fact that the truth was kept from them and that they no longer believe anything but the craziest rumours. One can continue to live normally in Beijing, and anywhere else in China, if one takes certain minimal precautions. This illness is serious, but individual risk remains limited, in my eyes.
This epidemic is above all revelatory of the worrying state of the Public Health Authorities. The readers of The Diary of Ma Yan will not be surprised to learn that healthcare is only provided against payment in China today, and that two thirds of more of the 1.3 billion Chinese have been gradually excluded from the public health system which, yes, was rudimentary in the past, but much more egalitarian than it is today, in a China which is more prosperous but suffers from flagrant inequalities. If the virus where to reach the south of Ningxia, it would be a disaster as not only are the sanitary infrastructures insufficient, but, above all, the villagers have lost the right to free health care. At the WHO’s request, the Government was happy to announce free medication for SARS for the poorest citizens, but this message is not widely spread and has definitely not reached such distant and cut-off places in the countryside.
In China, not only has public expenditure been at a low for 20 years, but 70% of the expenditure goes to urban centres, that is to say 15% of the population. There are those who wish this tendency to be reversed, but they are not listened to. Once the urgency of the ‘war on SARS’, now covered intensely by the official media in China, has gone, we will be left with this issue of imbalance of expenditures, as well as the issue of citizens’ access to information. It is not certain that China will draw any good lessons from this crisis. As for ourselves, once the health hazard has passed, we will carry on with our initiative of solidarity with the forgotten population of Ningxia, hoping that the epidemic will not have reached their region at any stage. We will keep you up to date with any new developments.
Pierre Haski
Beijing, 26 April 2003

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24 mars 2003 1 24 /03 /mars /2003 00:00
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A Chinese Girl’s Diary Builds a Bridge Out of Rural Poverty

(New York Time, 24/03/2004)

The long road that brought Ma Yan to the Paris book fair this week began three years ago in the remote village of Zhang Jia Shu in Ningxia region of northern China. At the time she was distraught because her parents could not afford to keep her in school. Today she is the 16-year-old author of "Ma Yan’s Diary : The Daily Life of a Chinese Schoolgirl," which has sold 45,000 copies in France and has already appeared in eight languages in addition to French.
Thanks to its publication, her family is no longer poor, and 250 other Ningxia youngsters, mostly girls, now have scholarships to continue studying. Even in Beijing the book has helped some remember the darker side of China’s economic miracle.
Initially Ms. Ma’s role was accidental. At her boarding school in Yuwang, 15 miles from her home, the preteenage students were required to keep journals. It just happened that one day in May 2001 her account of the struggle against hunger and poverty was given to a group of visitors from Beijing, along with a letter that Ms. Ma’s mother, Bai Juhua, had received from her daughter.
The letter caught the attention of the visitors, including Pierre Haski, the Beijing correspondent of the Paris daily Libération. In it Ms. Ma lamented that there was no money to keep her in school. "I’m back in the house, and I till the land in order to pay for my brothers’ schooling," she wrote, adding : "I want to go school, Mother. I don’t want to work at home. How wonderful it would be if I could stay in school forever !"
Mr. Haski’s assistant, He Yanping, then translated the diary, which was written between Sept. 2 and Dec. 28, 2000, when Ms. Ma was 12. Most entries are brief, but they convey her strong character. When an older boy beats her brother, for example, she vows : "If I study hard and make daily progress, I’ll go to university and become a policewoman. And if those boys bend the law even a tiny little bit, I won’t fail to have them punished." A desire to lift her parents out of poverty is a further motivation. "I must work really well in order to go to university later," she writes. "Then I’ll get a good job, and Mother and Father will at last have a happy life." But she also wants to improve herself. "In these times even beggars need degrees," she writes. "Nothing works for you if you don’t study. In the big cities even going to the toilet entails being able to read."
One month after reading this journal, Mr. Haski and Ms. He returned to Zhang Jia Shu. Ms. Ma was back at school, but only because her parents had borrowed money and her mother had taken a laborer’s job to repay the loan.
After meeting Ms. Ma and her parents the visitors gave them $120 to allow the 13-year-old to stay at school and her mother to pay off her loan.
"For me that was it," Mr. Haski later recalled. "We’d done our bit and would leave."
But after Libération published his article about Ma Yan and her plight on Jan. 11, 2002, Mr. Haski began receiving checks from readers. His instinct was to use the donations to keep other peasant girls in school. But he also received a proposal to publish Ms. Ma’s journal in France, and he traveled to Zhang Jia Shu with a contract. By then Ms. Ma had filled another journal covering July 3 to Dec. 13, 2001. (Her father had used the paper of her journal for the early months of 2001 to roll cigarettes.) This diary was much more somber than the earlier one.
"I’m terribly hungry," she writes. "There’s been no bread or vegetables since Tuesday. When I eat my rice now, there’s nothing to go with it. I even stole a piece out of a comrade’s bowl without alerting her. When she came back to the dormitory, she called me all manner of names." She goes on, "I have to study well so that I won’t ever again be tortured by hunger and lack of money."
She also worries about her mother, who complains of acute stomach pains. "My mother’s face is as black as coal, and her lips are all cracked. She looks terrible. What’s wrong with her ? Usually when she comes back from her mother’s, she’s happy, full of chat and laughter. But today --" She reflects mournfully, "Mother is the saddest and most unfortunate mother in the world."
But with the advance paid by the French publishers things improved. Ms. Ma and Mr. Haski, who edited and annotated the book, decided to give 25 percent of their royalties to the Association for the Children of Ningxia, which Mr. Haski had set up in France after his first article appeared. After "Ma Yan’s Diary" came out in France in October 2002, the association’s membership grew to 300, and more donations poured in. By February 2003, 42 pupils in Ningxia had received grants.
Since then the diary has also appeared in Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, Greece, Taiwan, Japan, Spain and Portugal. An English-language edition will be published in Britain by Virago this summer.
"I thought, `My job as a reporter is to denounce injustice, not to correct it,’ " Mr. Haski said in an interview. "Then I found myself in a situation where I could influence reality, but I had to live with that responsibility - to Ma Yan but also to a region that in a sense we have destabilized. The villagers can’t understand that something written by a 14-year-old girl could be of interest in France. At times I can’t sleep."
Still, he said, the Chinese authorities have been cooperative. "Ma Yan’s Diary" was published in China in October 2003, and its author appeared three times on government television. At a news conference she illustrated the fate of many poor peasant girls by reading a letter from a cousin forced to leave school and marry. "By the time you receive this letter," the cousin wrote, "I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the tomb of my life."
After Ms. Ma finished reading the letter, Mr. Haski recalled, most of the reporters in her audience were in tears. Now, in Paris on her first trip outside China, Ms. Ma seems unfazed by the attention."I can eat when I want to," she said in an interview. "My parents don’t have to travel to work. They have bought some land, a donkey, some sheep. They have a motorbike, a new television and a telephone. We have also repainted the house. I think that is enough."
But she has bigger ambitions. "I want to study journalism at university," she said. Asked why, she pointed to Mr. Haski, whom she calls Uncle Han. "Because Uncle Han and others traveled across the country and found poor children like us," she said. "I’d like to be a journalist so I, too, can help poor children."
Mr. Haski conceded that early in this bizarre adventure he worried that Ms. Ma might be spoiled by her sudden fame and relative fortune. But now he feels reassured. "Her teachers say she is still a good student who is generous with her colleagues," he said. Ms. Ma, too, seems aware that she still has far to go. "To get to university in Beijing," she said, "I have to do very well in the exams."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company |


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23 mars 2003 7 23 /03 /mars /2003 00:00
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(Commonground radio, USA, 23/03/2004)

« MCHUGH : A little known fact of life in China came to light when the diary of a 14-year-old peasant girl made it from a remote town in rural China made it to the bestseller lists in France. The book, which has now been published in 16 countries around the world, tells the story of a young girl who is desperate to stay in school, despite the problem of sky-high school fees, which her parents can’t afford. As Celia Hatton reports from Beijing, the book highlights a much larger problem in China, where rural schoolchildren cannot afford to complete even the most basic levels of education.
[The sound of people speaking Chinese in a busy room]
CELLIA HATTON : Excitement was in the air at a recent book launch in Beijing, as the long-awaited diaries of a 14-year-old girl were released in China. The diary of Ma Yan details the daily life of a schoolgirl from a remote, impoverished part of China who longs to stay in school, despite the fact that her school fees are crippling her parents.
[The sound of Ma Yan crying as she relates her story to the crowd at her book opening]
HATTON : At the launch, Ma Yan wept as she told the audience about a friend who was forced to leave school in the fifth grade and is now married with a baby. Often, parents are forced to choose which of their children will be allowed to continue studying, usually allowing boys to stay in school while girls are forced to marry into other families. Just before Ma Yan’s book fell into the hands of Pierre Haski, a French journalist traveling through her village, she had been told that she would not be allowed to continue with her education. Haski included excerpts of Ma Yan’s diary in the French newspaper Liberation and soon returned to the girl’s village to convince Ma Yan’s family to allow him to publish the entire diary in France.
Although Ma Yan’s story has a happy ending, she is just one of millions of children in rural China who must fight to remain in school, even in the first nine years of China’s supposedly compulsory education system. One Ministry of Education study last year found that five out of seven children in a region of China’s poor Anhui province had dropped out of school because their parents could not afford to pay tuition fees. United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski, was invited by the Chinese government to rate China’s compliance with its agreed international human rights obligations in education. She explained that the financial obstacles to basic education were her principle concern and criticized the Chinese government.
UNITED NATIONS SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR KATARINA TOMASEVSKI : The government of China is in a fairly comfortable position relying on the fact that most parents will do whatever they can to provide the best possible education for their children, which makes the life of the government very easy. It can mismanage budgetary allocations because parents will step in and provide as much as they can.
HATTON : Education funding was a casualty when China began to liberalize in the 1980s. As the economy began to open up, shrinking government budgets shifted the responsibility for education funding from the central to local governments. Bankrupt townships in rural areas eventually forced parents to cover most school expenses. French journalist Pierre Haski, who discovered Ma Yan’s diaries in rural Ningxia, says that in Ma Yan’s case, the tax-strapped government paid to build the school structure and now, only pays the meager salaries of the teachers who work there.
PIERRE HASKI : Everything else has to be provided by the parents. That means to pay for the electricity, to pay for the maintenance, to pay for the books, to pay for everything, they rely on the fees. And these fees are equal in that case to one year’s income of a villager.
HATTON : Katarina Tomasevski argued to the UN that the Chinese government needed to increase the allocation of funding from just over three percent of its gross domestic product to the internationally recommended minimum amount of six percent. Most developing countries are able to contribute four percent, Tomasevski says. In response to the UN report, the Chinese government issued its own statement highlighting strides that the education system has made in the past few years, including decreased illiteracy rates for women and higher enrollment rates for girls stretching from primary school to university. There are also signs, however, that the Chinese government is beginning to take note of the problem of rural school fees. In September, China’s Education Minister, Zhou Ji, promised to tackle the school fee problem by ensuring teacher’s salaries and eliminating random charges at primary and middle schools.
It will be difficult to improve education much, however, without committing more money. According to China’s state-run newspaper, The China Daily, China uses 1.4 percent of the world’s educational funds to support 22.9 percent of the world’s students. Back in Beijing, the success of Ma Yan’s book continues to grow. A charity, the Children of Ningxia, has been started in France to provide free education to all primary school children in Ma Yan’s village, and full scholarships to 50 middle school students in May Yan’s school, most of them girls. As more publishing houses around the world sign up to print Ma Yan’s book, the hope is that more children in rural China will be able to overcome the problem of sky-high school fees. For Common Ground, I’m Celia Hatton in Beijing.
MORT : For Common Ground, I’m Steve Mort at the United Nations in New York.
PORTER : That’s our show for this week. If you have questions or comments about today’s program, visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org or e-mail us at commonground@commongroundradio.org.
MCHUGH : Transcripts and information on how to order copies of this and other Common Ground programs are also available on our Web site : commongroundradio.org. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER : And I’m Keith Porter. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. Creative Director is Amy Bakke. Andy Burnette is our Webmasters. Jim Yoon is Senior Webmaster. Susan Roggendorf provides administrative assistance. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Additional compositions by Wink Music.
ANNOUNCER : Common Ground is a Stanley Foundation production. The Stanley Foundation : promoting public understanding, constructive dialogue, and cooperative action on critical international issues. On the Web at stanleyfoundation.org.

© 2004 by The Stanley Foundation Sponsored by The Stanley Foundation 209 Iowa Avenue Muscatine, Iowa 52761 USA 563-264-1500 563-264-0864 fax





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7 février 2003 5 07 /02 /février /2003 00:00
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Letter 13 - February 2003

Dear All,
On the night we arrived in the capital of the region we are assisting, we were greeted by the assistant director of the Yuwang middle School with the words “You are as welcome as a blazing fire in the snow”. These words remained with us during the three days of our stay in Ningxia, between the 25th and the 28th February, a stay during which we achieved important progress for our future activity in the region. I was accompanied by my assistant He Yanping and Nicolas Bobin, a teacher in the French high school in Beijing.
MA YAN. First of all, the first surprise of our stay : Ma Yan, whom we had seen every day with her parents, and who behaves herself remarkably well in spite of the several little drawbacks of her sudden notoriety, announced her decision to donate 25% of the royalties from her book to our Association. She made a very solemn declaration to formalise this decision, which was taken together with her mother, and following several discussions with us, as well as with the leaders in the School and in the region.
We started the discussion with her mother after having received several applications from members of her close family asking us for bursaries. We pointed out that she now had the means to help her family herself and that the bursaries had to go to families who were less well provided for. This idea took root, and gave rise to this spontaneous declaration which came as a very pleasant surprise on the second day of our stay. Her mother told us that she had been impressed by the number of French people who continued to help the children of Ningxia.
Here is Ma Yan’s letter :
“I am an ordinary student. I have received assistance from certain friends. Today, I also want to offer love so that more poor children can gain access to the ocean of knowledge and go to school ; so that they may gradually realise their dreams ; so that they may build a better future for our country, our nation. If everyone offers up a little love, the world will be a better place. I want to donate 25% of all the royalties from the book ‘The Diary of Ma Yan’ to the French Association for the Children of Ningxia.
“Ma Yan, 26 February 2003.”
BURSARIES. We met with almost all the bursary holders of the Association and some of their parents. They are children who are happy to be able to continue their studies, and who show us a deep gratitude for a gesture of solidarity for which they had not hoped. We have renewed their bursaries for a second semester. Worried at not having received their bursaries as the lessons were starting in the following week, they had gone to see the management of the school who had put their minds at rest saying they were to await news from us... Our arrival on the following day had been a great relief.
With prudence, we have appreciably increased the number of bursary holders, which is now 42 as opposed to the previous 30. In doing so we relied on the considerable mail we had received in Beijing, the help of the High School management who were very cooperative, and the meetings which took place during our previous visit. We have therefore taken on twelve extra bursary holders, five of whom were recommended by the School director, and whose families no longer had the means to pay for the second semester. As in the previous years, about 10% of the 1000 students in the Yuwang School were removed in the second semester by families who did not have the funds necessary to pay the tuition fees. Remember that these amount to 180 Yuan per semester, to which is added the price of a sack of rice for the boarders coming from the nearby villages, that is to say the majority of the students. Our bursaries go up to 500 Yuan per semester.
In the village of Zhang Jia Shu, we were confronted, as always, with the extent of the destitution. Three grandmothers came to plead with us for their granddaughters. They had gone to beg in town to be able to pay the tuition fees. One of them is not unknown to the readers of the book : she had crossed her arms and stood in our road at the time of our first passing through the village, to plead for her family. We had not been able to help her at the time, but after this visit her granddaughter became one of our bursary holders. The bursaries for primary school students are of 200 Yuan. By way of exception we also donated 500 Yuan to the sick mother of one of our bursary holders, whom we visited at the hospital - healthcare has to be paid for, and the family had got heavily into debt because of the situation.
The demand for help was very great this time, too, which placed us in a delicate situation. Clearly, we could not help everybody, and still less choose the bursary holders on the basis of which people approached us in the street. A brief moment of tension was resolved when the following day, the imam of the village came to visit us in our hotel in Yuwang, to present us with self-criticism in the name of villagers (Maoism is not far away...) for having harassed us the previous day.
The party secretary was also present, and together with these two village authorities we created a Student Committee, which will be charged with receiving and sorting the bursary applications which would then be decided together with us. From the beginning we had hoped for such an initiative on the part of the villagers, but it had seemed difficult to surmount the divisions and rivalries inherent in village life.
The ‘miracle’ occurred : the imam and the party secretary decided to work together, a reconciliation sealed by a photo of the two of them with me. This deal made between the spiritual and political powers was reminiscent of a Don Camillo and Peppone situation, but we hope that this will allow us to do our work in the village more serenely and effectively.
OTHER ACTIVITIES. At Yuwang, as at Zhang Jia Shu, we discussed with the authorities the new possibilities thanks to the support acquired by the Association : more than 200 persons will receive this letter, and several fund-raising initiatives have been launched. At Yuwang, the School director pointed out that the absolute priority in his eyes was the acquisition of computers for his students. “If our students leave school without ever having handled a computer, we would have produced technology-age illiterates”, we were told by this man who was forced to deal with penury. We are therefore going to try to put together the funds to create, by the start of the new academic year in September, an IT room containing 20 computers in the new school which is being built.
We also committed ourselves to building a basic library for the High School : we have brought them 20 Chinese dictionaries and six English-Chinese dictionaries, as well as an encyclopedia donated by the Beijing teacher who accompanied us, and some BD in Chinese (Tintin, Lucky Luke...) donated by a German student in the University of Ningxia. Having visited another time the miserable dormitories of the students, which will remain unaltered after the completion of the new building because this will absorb all funds up to 2005, we concluded that we could, having regard to the funds at our disposal, assist in the renovation of these areas which were fairly dilapidated and unhygienic.
At Zhang Jia Shu, the imam, who teaches on a voluntary basis at the public primary school of the village, talked to us of their local needs and of the possibility of obtaining subsidies from the state if the school itself raises 10,000 Yuan. This sum is charged to the parents, and is impossible to raise in this penniless village. We are going to examine the possibility of helping them. We also spoke again about the collapsed well in the village, which we are seeking to have financed by a sponsor. We offered the primary school a portion of the school supplies purchased at Yinchuan, the capital of the region, and of those sent from France by some of you.
THE AUTHORITIES. On our return to Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, we were invited to dinner by the director of the Weiban, the ‘foreign office’ of the province, an official organisation charged with controlling all activities of foreigners. Our relationship has not always been easy, and they even had our identities checked by the police last summer, when we were at Yuwang with Michele Fitoussi. This time, we received a pleasant and cordial welcome from the director who even declared our project exemplary. A journalist from a daily newspaper of Yuwang was also there to give a public dimension to this official support.
There was a slight sense of the authorities ‘reclaiming control’ (of the project), but this kind of official support is better than hostility on the part of the authorities, and it is certainly in the interest of the children we help. And for now it leaves us complete masters of the means and objectives of our activity. It is clear that after a moment of wavering on the publication of The Diary of Ma Yan in France in Autumn, the authorities have decided to take a positive attitude towards us, and we can only congratulate ourselves on this.
CONTRIBUTIONS. Besides an increasing number of persons who donate monthly or annual sums to the bursary funds (thanks go to those who completed the questionnaire, which has given us a better overview), we have several initiatives taking place. First, the company Hermès (yes, the luxury goods producer...) will organize special sales in Beijing for the benefit of the Association !
And support initiatives are taking place in the French high schools of Beijing and Hongkong, where I have held conferences and where the students were able to tackle the themes of the Diary of Ma Yan with their teachers. Nicolas Bobin, teacher at the school of Beijing, accompanied me all through this voyage, and expects to return in the spring with a group of students who will have already worked on the issues regarding education in China. Finally, a representative of the Association now exists in Hongkong, jointly in the persons of Diane Michaud and Evonne Col, who, for those interested, may be contacted on the following email address : hk_enfantsduningxia@yahoo.com.
MARRIAGE. To conclude, some news of Ma Shiping, the young girl mentioned in the preceding letter, married at 16 after having had to put a stop to her studies : she is well and truly married in the traditional manner (the legal age for girls is 20 years), and has moved to her husband’s village. We were not therefore able to see her. Her dowry was a motorcycle, a privileged mode of transport in this region of difficult tracks. Too late to do anything about it, alas. The children we are helping, we hope, will escape this fate.
Pierre Haski

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19 janvier 2003 7 19 /01 /janvier /2003 00:00
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I want to go to School

(China Youth Daily, 18/01/2003)


The diary of a Chinese girl who had to leave school because her family could not afford it any longer has been published in Paris and become a bestseller, and translated into several other European languages and Japanese. The book title is “Ma Yan’s Diary,” subtitle “The Daily Life of a Chinese Schoolgirl”.

In May 2001, Pierre Haski from Liberation, a French newspaper, visited Zhang Jia Shu for the first time and didn’t know that Ma Juhua’s daughter, Ma Yan, will soon drop out of school. Zhang Jia Shu is the most northern village in the area of Yu Wang in Xi Hai Gu, Ningxia Province. With seven of its counties named on the official list of China’s poorest counties, Xi Hai Gu was identified by the United Nations in 1972 as one of the areas not suitable for human living.
Local officials said that Pierre is the first foreign journalist the village has seen since (US reporter) Edgar Snow’s visit (in 1940s, author of “Red Star in China”). Just before Pierre and other visitors left the village, Ma Juhua who wore a white Muslim cap, put a piece of paper and three notebooks into Pierre’s and his assistant’s hands. Until they were back in Beijing did Pierre and his assistant find out that the paper and the notebooks were a letter and three diary books. All of them were written by Ma Yan. The letter said, “I can no longer go to school this year. I’m back in the house, and I till the land in order to pay for my brothers’ schooling. How I want to go to school ! But my family has no money.” Pierre has read many writings about living in poverty. But a 13-year-old girl’s simple journal of countless little things in her life touched him, left him “shaken.”
Twenty-seven days later Pierre went back to Zhang Jia Shu “at the end of the world.” The flight from Beijing to Yin Chuan (capital of the Ningxia Province) took only an hour, but the bumpy vehicle ride from Yin Chuan to Zhang Jia Shu took him a whole day.
Ma Yan’s mother happened to be home that evening after collecting vegetables. “When she gave us her daughter’s diary, she knew she was throwing a message bottle to the sea. Now she saw us, she knew that the bottle had reached its destination. She couldn’t stop crying.”
Pierre left 1000 Yuan (US$120) to Ma Yan’s family. It cost 500 Yuan (US$60) a year for her to go to middle school. After Pierre had left, the relatives of Ma Yan’s family came to ask for money, Ma Yan’s mother had to use part of Pierre’s gift to pay debt to them.
In March 2002, Pierre visited the village for the third time. This time he came with a publishing contract for Ma Yan to sign. Pierre and Ma Yan would be the co-author of “Ma Yan’s Diary” to be published in French. In the book, Pierre wrote about Ma Yan’s story as he knew. He didn’t expect that his first book about China would be in this subject. He had thought it would be a political commentary. He had even less expectations that his reporting about Ma Yan would cause so much reaction. A journalist with 28 years of experience, Pierre has covered South Africa and Israel as a foreign correspondent.
On January 11, 2002, after a delay by the 9/11 event, Pierre’s article, “I Want to Go to School,” appeared on the Liberation covering two full pages. On the next day reader’s letters poured into his email box. Three days later, an editor from Ramsay, a 25-year-old small publishing house in France, called Pierre’s office in Beijing, saying that they would like to turn Ma Yan’s diary into a book. The publishing house published the memoir of Mrs. Mitterrand (former first lady of France).
After reading Pierre’s article, students and teachers from a Paris middle school raised some fund for Ma Yan and wrote her a letter. The letter said, “We are very touched and hope to be able to help you and your family. We wish you can continue your schooling. In France, we don’t even have the right to work until we are 16, therefore we are very sympathetic about your situation. We wish we can help to make your dream come true. We wish you success in your study and a bright future thereafter so that you can help your family. We wait for some good news from you. We wish we can hear from you.” The first donor is a journalist from the ELLE magazine, Michelle Fitoussi. In July 2002, she went to China as well and interviewed Ma Yan. Her reporting focused on the large number of girls in Zhang Jia Shu who could not go to school.
Pierre used the donations from all over Europe to set up a foundation, “The Association for the Children of Ningxia.” The foundation has helped dozens of children in the region, all of them except two are girls.
What Changed the Fate
Mother said, “Your father is the only person in the family who has a job, if all your three children go to school, the money he earned won’t be enough.” “So, that means I have to go home.” “Yes,” mother said. “How about my two brothers ?” “They must stay in school.” “Why can boys stay in school and girls can’t ?” “You are too little to understand it. You’ll understand when you grow up,” mother said.
— Ma Yan
In October 2002, Ma Yan saw her French publisher and her book in Beijing. Ma Yan’s Diary is priced at 20.5 Euros, about 160 Yuan.
The party secretary in the town of Yu Wang, Luo Yanyuan attended Yu Wang middle school, then the Geology Institute of Xi An, and came back to Yu Wang after graduation. Secretary Luo doesn’t approve the attention the media has been giving to Ma Yan. He told our reporter that Ma Yan became arrogant now that people publish her book and give her money. Villagers have lots of complaints, saying that Ma Yan is no longer self-disciplined and even allowed French guys to take her to an entertainment bar in Beijing.
While the reporter was interviewing Ma Yan’s mother, the principal of the Zhang Jia Shu elementary school, Hu Dengshuang, asked the reporter out, and told him that the villagers were unhappy about the assistance that Ma Yan’s family had received from French people. They wanted the money to be shared by more people in the village. Some villagers went into angry arguments which almost escalated to a fist fight.
Secretary Luo emphasized that education played an important role in changing a family, a clan, and a village. Besides that there were too many people but too little land, people were poor in Yu Wang mainly because of their lack of education and failure of family planning.
The reporter asked, “What is the town government going to do about the children who are too poor to go to school ?”
Secretary Luo said, “The town government wish to allocate some civil fund to help them, for example, reducing or eliminating tuition and fees for the extremely poor children. During the highest enrollment time every year, we can reduce their book purchase fee by 30%, and tuition by 20%. Due to a shortage of school dormitory rooms, the town government also allows children to commute if they live within five Li (1.5 mile) of their school. This way they pay less for room and board.”
“If Ma Yan had dropped out of school, it’s very possible that she would have been married by now,” Ma Yan’s middle school principle told the reporter. Villagers value boys, and treat girls as labors. Some girls have never been to school. When a family is short of money, girls are the first to drop out of school. Ma Yan’s fate could easily be : she marries at a very young age, her parents use the betrothal gift and money from the groom’s family to help her two younger brothers to find a wife.
It’s a custom for girls to marry at a very young age in Xi Hai Gu. The reporter saw many young girls who were already married and had a baby in their arms. Their immature body is already nurturing another human life. “Their marriage has no legal recognition, therefore no legal protection.” A 15-year-old cousin of Ma Yan’s dropped out of school a year ago, and was to get married next week.
In Zhang Jia Shu, the reporter also met Wang Xiaoyan, Ma Yan’s elementary school teacher. She was the only vivacious girl the reporter had seen in Xi Hai Gu. Wearing a brightly red jacket, a pair of black jeans and white sneakers, she had bright eyes and smiled a lot while talking. Married at 18, now 20, Wang said that she married late. And she had a son with brain disease. Wang taught two classes, a preschool and a first grade one. When she was teaching the preschool class, students of the first grade class would play outdoor ; when the first grader students were in the classroom, children of the preschool class would play outside. When the reporter saw Wang Xiaoyan, she was leading the students of both of her classes to read text aloud : “I get on a spaceship, I fly to the space. I see China, China has Yangzi River, Yellow River, and the Great Wall.”
The reporter met Ma Yan in her middle school who just came back from Beijing. She told the reporter that she had been to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. She liked Beijing very much. The city was very clean and big, people there nice. There was no litter, unlike here, garbage and dirt everywhere.
The reporter asked her : “Many children in your village drop out school. Why do you insist going to school ?”
Ma Yan said : “I want to go to school because I don’t want to live like my parents. Their life is too poor.”
The reporter asked : “Can going to school guarantee you a different life than your parents’ ?”
Ma Yan said : “Going to school will give a person knowledge, a person with knowledge will be able to choose a life she wants.”


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16 janvier 2003 4 16 /01 /janvier /2003 00:00
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China’s new female writers captivate world.

www.asiatimes.com, Jan. 16, 2003

By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - Two utterly different female voices of China have come to fascinate worldwide publishers in recent months, giving rise to yet another round of enchantment with the exoticism of China’s multiple faces.
One - a barely mature voice of a 14-year-old girl from the wind-swept arid plains of China’s northwest, confesses the pains of growing and learning as a woman belonging to an ethnic minority on the forgotten fringes of the country.
Ma Yan’s Diary is the intimate journal of a young girl who wants to study but whose family is too poor to help her escape the uniform destiny of many peasant women - dropping out from school and getting married very early.
The diary was not conceived as a work to be published. But since its discovery by a French journalist in Zhangjiashu village in Ningxia a year ago, it has become the hot property of many publishing houses in Europe and Japan.
Another trendy voice - a confident and yet naive narrative of an 18-year-old girl from Beijing - reveals volumes about solitude as an intense but groundless young urban generation of China emerges, with contempt for study and hunger for passion being the main characteristics of many.
Beijing Wawa ("Beijing Doll") is what skeptics may say is the Beijing rendition of Shanghai Baby - the banned best-seller of steamy sex and decadent urban life penned by Chinese female writer Wei Hui in 1999.
Yet what Beijing Wawa author Chun Shu writes is less self-conscious and strikes a greater note of sincerity with its young readers. Her pen name - Chun Shu, meaning Spring Tree - is not ostentatious and denotes just the writer’s young age.
Both Ma Yan’s and Chun Shu’s books are autobiographical. Chun Shu’s narrative lays claim to representing the voice of her generation - the urban type of girls with no privileges or background born in the China of late 1980s, fascinated with underground rock music and "punk spirit", searching for lasting love and warmth in a circle of alienation and ephemeral pleasures.
Ma Yan’s journal is personal but sheds light into the daily life of thousands of girls from the Muslim Hui minority in Ningxia - one of China’s poorest western provinces.
Thousands of kilometers away from the booming coastal cities in the east and forgotten by the market forces that nowadays rule this once egalitarian country, these girls have to leave school and toil in the fields to support their families before being made to marry at the age of 15 in exchange for a dowry.
Ma Yan’s diary landed in the hands of Pierre Haski, a correspondent for France’s newspaper Liberation, who was the first foreigner many of the villagers in Zhangjiashu ever saw. Ma Yan’s mother, Ma Juhua, shoved three little notebooks with handwriting into Pierre’s hands when he was passing through the village during a trip in 2001.
"The expression on her face was such as if her life depended on this," says Pierre, "and I could not refuse to take them although at the time I did not know what it was."
A month later, Haski returned to give the family 1,000 yuan (US$120) - enough to enable them to cover middle-school fees for two years. " When Ma’s mother saw me," he recalls, "she knew that her message in a bottle thrown in the big sea had reached a shore. She cried."
What unites and separates both books are their protagonists’ strong feelings about academia. They could not be more different.
"I want to study," screams Ma Yan, when her mother tells her that there is no money in the family for her to continue with schooling in the next term.
"If I come home, what would happen to my two brothers ?" asks Ma Yan. "Your brothers would continue at school," answers her mother. "But why boys can study and girls cannot ?" Ma Yan doesn’t give up. "You are too young to understand. When you grow up, you will learn why," comes the answer.
"I want to study, mother," writes the girl in her diary. "I don’t want to return home. It would be wonderful if I could stay at school forever."
With equal determination, Chun Shu declares in her novel that "she hates schools". "I did not make it into the senior middle school," she continues, "but even if I had what difference would it make ? I would not be happier or luckier."
Chun Shu is nothing but unaware of the provocative tone of her writing in country that is obsessed with higher education after a whole generation lost its chance for schooling in the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
But Chun Shu belongs to a generation of youth reaching their twenties with no memory of hardship and political ravages. And she seems to give a little thought to what preoccupied Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby - a search for personality and moral grounding in a country of shifting values.
Chun Shu is absorbed in her own pursuit of pleasures and she is not ashamed of laying bare the course of her days full of sex, rock music and gatherings of "punk" friends. Still, despite the apparent lack of soul-searching in her book, Chun Shu’s writing appealed better to readers here because it seems less self-conscious of the shortcuts to writer’s fame than the deliberate writing in Shanghai Baby.
"I think she is much more substantive and sincere than Wei Hui, author of Shanghai Baby," remarks a Chinese reader about Chun Shu in an Internet chatroom.
After appearing in China in May 2002, Beijing Wawa has quickly captured the attention of foreign publishing houses in Britain and Germany that are bidding for publishing rights. The hype surrounding the book has led some book lovers here to speculate that it will not be long before the Chinese arbiters of taste ban the book.
But while Beijing Wawa has had a chance to debut on the Chinese literary scene, Ma Yan’s Diary has premiered only abroad.
When Pierre Haski’s article about Ma Yan appeared in France, the drama of the young girl revealed in the simple records of her daily life caught the eye of the publishers at the Editions Ramsay.
The diary - translated into French and with a foreword by Haski - appeared in October. Publishing rights have already been sold to publishing houses throughout Europe and also in Japan, and numbers of sales have quickly risen.
In China, however, the book remains a somewhat embarrassing testimony to the failure of the Communist Party to fend for China’s impoverished minorities. "All this difficult life and described by the hand of a child - I doubt the book will get published any time soon," muses one Chinese literature professor.


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7 janvier 2003 2 07 /01 /janvier /2003 00:00
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Letter 12 - January 2003

Dear All
The New Year has been marked by an influx of numerous enquiries, donations and offers to provide help in various forms, to the address of our Association in Paris and to our email address. Welcome to all those of you who receive this newsletter for the first time. This letter is now being sent to nearly 150 people in France and in Europe, but also in China.
This increased support will give us the means of doing more to help the children in this disadvantaged region of China in the future. I will go to Ningxia in mid-February, after the New Year holidays are over, in order to increase the number of bursary recipients significantly, and to see together with the people in charge in the village on what other high priority projects we could co-operate with them, whether it concerns the village of Zhang Jia Shu (the digging of the wells...) or the new High School buildings in Yuwang, where Ma Yan is studying. We will inform you in February of the results of this visit.
QUESTIONNAIRE. In order to understand a little better who we are, to gain a better overview of the funds the Association can command on the medium term, but also to get to know you better, we are asking you to give up a few minutes to fill in a brief questionnaire attached to this letter. It will allow us, above all, to understand the nature of your financial commitments toward our initiative. It is indeed important for us to know, when we increase the number of bursary recipients, that our resources allow us to follow through with these bursaries, so that we do not give rise to false hopes on the part of the children we help. The absolute confidentiality of all such information received is understood.
IMPROVED RELATIONS. As I had indicated in the preceding newsletter, we had a period of some tension with the local authorities. This has been resolved, and we had a visit from officials responsible for foreign relations at Ningxia Province’s Office in Beijing. They came to make us some presents, and to assure us of their continued support for our initiative. This was the first time their support was expressed in such clear and official terms and this is good news.
The story of Ma Yan and of our Association has continued to receive a certain measure of public attention within China. The national television channel CCTV broadcast an interview with Ma Yan and her mother at the beginning of January, the Cantonese weekly Southern Weekend published in the last issue of last year a report entitled ‘Ma Yan, happy but stressed’...in his report, the journalist emphasises that if Ma Yan and her family can lead a better life today thanks to the copyright of the diary, she has also come into the limelight of public attention, and now has no right to make mistakes : for those who envy her would profit if she did, and those who admire her would be disappointed. This is a lot of pressure to be sustained by a fifteen-year-old adolescent.
MAIL. We keep receiving a considerable amount of mail, in France as well as in China. In France, apart from enquiries and offers of help, we have had an enormous number of letters addressed to Ma Yan through the magazine Okapi acting as intermediary. It had invited its young readers to write letters to the Chinese schoolgirl. Frequently moving and emotional letters, to which pens have been attached because all were so struck by the story of Ma Yan’s pen bought after she had deprived herself of bread for two weeks. We will hand over all these letters to her in February.
Letters from within China are of a different nature. Partly, we are receiving warm and enthusiastic letter from the bursary recipients of the Association, from whom we ask as our only demand that they report regularly on their progress at school. For another part, we also receive a considerable number of letters asking for help, from the entire region. These letters will be useful for the selection of future bursary holders - a thankless task, for which there can be no ‘scientific’ approach, but only a flexible and pragmatic mix of criteria.
And in this context - we received a terrible letter from a young girl, Ma Shiping, a relation of Ma Yan’s, and a little older than her, whose younger sister we are helping. We had not taken her on as a bursary recipient because it is difficult for us to by too closely connected with just one particular family ; this could compromise our initiative. The letter we just received goes to illustrate to what point these families are craving for education, and that access to education decides whether these children can live, or whether their lives will close. This is the letter, addressed to my assistant He Yanping :
‘When you receive this letter I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the grave of life. I am a reticent person ; I don’t normally open up. Usually, I keep all bitterness and pain inside me.
When I saw you the first time, I admired you. I had to break off my school education. I hoped you would listen to me, but then I could not speak to you. At that time I was still in the sanctuary of studies, the paradise of human knowledge. My mother went to see you in my name. I was reassured that you had agreed to help me. I was singing. One semester later when the others received sums covering for their school fees, I couldn’t pay mine. I gave in to the pressures form my family. All my young girl’s self-confidence and pride were set aside. I was ashamed. I hated everybody under the sky. But because I am such a reticent person, I bottled it all up within myself, and I just stopped going to school. My parents thought I was being ill, whereas I was thinking of dying and laying the blame upon my family. But I just couldn’t bring myself to die. So I did what young people my age do not want to do : to get married with a dying heart. I am not blaming anyone, only my destiny. I had believed to much in that phrase which says that man can vanquish the sky. Now, I am only awaiting the choices my destiny will make for me.
I thank you for the help you have given to my younger sister so that she does not have to follow me. But she is working without light and is ruining her eyes like this ; I am worried about her health. I hope that with your help she may become the first or second student in her class.
There are many more things I have to tell you. But I will keep them to myself to my death.
Written with the tears of a fifteen-year-old.’
We are trying to see how this tragic situation could be handled. It arose from a misunderstanding, since we had never agreed to help her, for the reasons stated further above. My assistant has written a long letter to her, to see what the real situation is now and if there is any way of getting round it. Those of you who have read Ma Yan’s Diary will remember that when we began our action, some people on the spot told us that it was futile, because one could not fight against fate in these villages, where the girls are married at age 16 (illegally, by the way) after having been withdrawn from school. We succeeded in avoiding this seemingly inevitable fate in the case of Ma Yan whose future is now open, and all the bursary recipients of the Association. But it is obvious that those cases are still exceptions to a normality exemplified by this case just described.
Make our initiative known among people around you, and thanks for your confidence and your support.
Best wishes
Pierre Haski

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7 décembre 2002 6 07 /12 /décembre /2002 00:00
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Letter 11 - December 2002

Dear All
Firstly, welcome to all who have joined us since the publication of The Diary of Ma Yan. You are numerous, and among you there are a number of High School students, even entire classes who have taken initiatives to help the children of Ningxia. More than a hundred people will receive this letter in the future, which we are trying to circulate on a monthly basis.
This new and increased support coincided with the formal creation of the Association in autumn and the coming into existence of a proper organisation, which is entirely based on volunteer work. Volunteers are taking care of the correspondence and managing the donations in Paris ; others, in Geneva, are now constructing a web site of the Children of Ningxia, which will contain all the documentation from the beginning of our adventure, numerous photos, and regular updates on the children whom we are helping to get schooling. Others, finally, are working on a pedagogical project around Ma Yan’s story, which will apparently be part of a brochure of the French Ministry of Education on the subject of getting young people involved.
We have also put in place a system of translation for those who would like to correspond with Ma Yan or other bursary holders of the Association : it is sufficient if you write to our address, and we will have your letter translated into Chinese in Paris before sending it off. And the same vice versa, of course.
News from Ningxia : two weeks ago, we had a visit from Ma Yan and her mother in Beijing. They were invited to come here by a Chinese television channel for a programme for which I was also interviewed. The journalist who interviewed me even proposed to work as a volunteer for the Association...I have not yet seen the interview, and therefore do not know what the presentation of the story will be like. One will anyway have to be patient, since the scheduled recording was cancelled and the television channel insisted that Ma Yan and her mother return to Beijing this Sunday, to re-record the interview...This time they will come here by plane, a first for them, the tickets having been paid for by the TV channel. So we will have to wait !
The director of Ma Yan’s School has called us about the visit : he was annoyed by all this traveling back and forth, but he could just as little oppose a national television channel as we could. He has asked Ma Yan’s teachers to help her catch up with her classes on her return...This ‘taking control’ on the part of Chinese authorities may be surprising, but it has at least one positive aspect : it protects Ma Yan and her family from negative side effects of the publicity her story is gaining abroad. It is a thousand times preferable to see them being rejected or attacked [by the authorities]. Seeing Ma Yan and her mother during their last visit in Beijing, one could feel reassured, at any rate, that they were not at all perturbed by all this agitation...Their life has been transformed so much from a year ago, in a largely positive sense, that they now take everything new that happens with philosophy.
By contrast, matters in the region of Zhang Jia Shu have not been so simple during the past weeks. While up until now we have been able to operate completely independently, the coming out of the book has somewhat raised the stakes. Certain authorities told themselves that it was necessary to channel us through official structures perhaps with the idea of profiting a little from our modest mount of financial manna, in the back of their minds. This was a somewhat tense moment, since an emissary came to see me in Beijing in order to pass on this menacing message.
One village clan opposed the other, and there was no small measure of agitation of minds. We succeeded in calming matters down : I sent a memorandum to all the authorities of the district, reminding them of the way the initiative came into existence, of the reason why Ma Yan has today some more money at her disposal than the others (her copyright in the book), and underlined that the publicity around the book as well as part of the right to the royalties would generate more means for the Association to help the collective. On condition that we could establish a consensus on how to proceed : it is out of the question for us, in particular, to delegate the handling of the funds to others.
This message was well taken, and the return messages we received, especially from education department, were entirely positive. So we can now view the further development of our initiative more serenely. I will go there in February after the Chinese New Year and before the beginning of the second semester, in order to see the present bursary recipients and in order to select some additional ones, thanks to the increased means at our disposal, but also to discuss with the several intermediaries in place there what future forms our support could take.
There is the possibility of the breakfast, which was first accepted, but then abandoned during those tensions (in Beijing, incidentally, I met a person in charge of a programme of the UN which finances meals in school in disadvantaged regions around the world, who is preparing to launch this programme for about 500000 children in China. According to their studies a child with full stomach studies 40% better than a child with an empty stomach. One was guessing this to be the case anyway, but the studies have confirmed it.)
There is also the possibility of helping the village to reconstruct its well, which dried up several years ago, or of helping with equipment for the new School building now under construction. All kinds of ways of bringing concrete help, including even help with finding sponsors who, however, would have to enter into agreements with those in charge in the village, as well as with us. It would be strange if all these things were happening smoothly and without difficulties, though for the moment the difficulties seem to have been overcome...
While waiting [for these larger projects to be realised] we continue slowly increasing the number of our bursary holders, on the basis of an abundance of letters which we keep receiving in Beijing. Every day the misery and destitution of Ningxia arrive in our letterbox. In the majority of cases, we will meet the letter-writer the next time we come through the region, as we consider it preferable to have seen the children and their families before we take a decision. In two or three cases, though, we took on a new bursary recipient or made a one-off payment to a student originating from these communities, who was having financial difficulties at his or her place of studying, acting on a recommendation. In particular, we have ‘taken on’ a young girl who was threatened with having to withdraw from school because her elder brothers finished their school education without, however, finding any employment, and her parents concluded from this that it was a waste [to let her continue]. She sent us a desperate letter, most of all dreading the prospect of having to stop school.
So in February, you will see a little more clearly in which direction our initiative should be heading : by continuing with the indispensable grant of bursaries which allows us to help dozens of girls who would otherwise be condemned to a bleak future, and by widening the scope of our action to help the more collective development of this community with which Ma Yan’s story has connected us.
If you wish, do not hesitate to write to Ma Yan on the occasion of the Western holidays, or of the Chinese New Year. One of our bursary holders, Wei Yonge, who had written to us last spring thinking she was dying of pneumonia, is now in good health but she is isolated in a vocational training school situated at a long distance from her home : she will surely appreciate tokens of friendship from Europe. Among all our bursary holders, she is the one most advanced with her studies. Another, Ma Hua, disabled by polio, is among the most brilliant, and certainly merits all encouragement. We have the list of bursary recipients at your disposal.
I wish everyone of you pleasant holidays, and hope that the initiative we started in 2002 in this particularly disadvantaged region will be able to develop further.
Best regards
Pierre Haski
Beijing, 14 December 2002

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