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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.

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7 mai 2004 5 07 /05 /mai /2004 00:00
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THE LETTER FROM THE NINGXIA/
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Letter 24 - may 2004

Dear all,
HONG KONG in NINGXIA. It was a truly astonishing sight : on 22 May 2004 fifteen students of the Hong Kong Lycée Français and four of their teachers could be seen retracing Ma Yan’s old way to elementary school as she had described it in her diary. They got off their bus at a few kilometres’ distance from the village Zhang Jia Shu and decided to walk the rest of the way, despite the heat and the dust.

This was one of many moments during this unusual trip, an encounter between students of Hong Kong’s Lycée Français and Ningxia, Zhang Jia Shu village, the villagers, and Ma Yan’s school, that will stay with us. The students from Hong Kong were welcomed by the families of Zhang Jia Shu, villagers who shared a simple meal with them, allowing them a glimpse of the simple lives they lead and of the daily difficulties they are having to struggle with : most notably, the lack of water. This year has been particularly bad. No snow in winter means that the cisterns are empty and that water now has to be bought at the exorbitant rate of 60 Yuan (6 Euro or about £ 4 ) per cubic metre, an extortionate price for these poor peasants who are among the poorest in China.
Later at Yuwang, the students met up with Ma Yan who is a student there now. A big ceremony was held, with officials making emotional speeches and the French students distributing the presents they had brought with them : books, sports equipment, an electric organ, and a notebook and pen for each of the 1150 students Then the French students split up into small groups to meet and chat with Chinese students in their individual classrooms. Then everybody came back again for big meal together. After that, they made use of the universal language of sport, improvising a Sino-French basketball competition. Despite their height the French boys lost against the Chinese, but then the French girls won : it would have been difficult to arrange for a more ‘diplomatic’ result !
As the French students’ bus was leaving the school director had tears in his eyes : never before had his small, rural school received this kind of oxygen boost. It had been an extraordinary experience for him, just as for his students. But on the part of the French, too, according to Anne-Marie Bordas, the teacher who had taken on the laborious task of carefully organising this visit, it had been ‘a great and enriching experience.’ It has been an opportunity for the French students who for the most part study Chinese and had been working with Ma Yan’s diary in class, to come in close contact with the real difficulties faced by students going to school in the deprived Ningxia countryside : difficulties like the water problem, for instance, which means that boarding students, hundreds of them together, cannot wash at school ; the poverty of the dormitories - Ma Yan and the majority of other students have to share their beds with another because there is simply not enough space - ; and the sparse, deficient equipment. - But at the same time the visitors from Hong Kong had met students determined to learn and lift themselves out of their difficult condition. Among them Ma Xiaomei, one of the young recipients of a bursary from the Association and also one of the heroines of ‘Ma Yan and her sisters :’ that day in class and in conversation with the French students she was smiling, gentle, spontaneous, and impressed her visitors very much.
For us this visit was a moment of human solidarity shown in a different form from the material support we can provide. The children of Ningxia certainly need bursaries ; but beyond this they also need to be taken out of their mental seclusion. This encounter with some young French students has managed to capture, better than anything else, the spirit in which we have entered this region - have, indeed, intervened there to help. We are greatly encouraged by the reception they got, and it shows how far we have come already since our project was first accepted there [by the authorities]. This shows that it has now really become entrenched in Ningxia. So we hope we may repeat this experience and - why not - perhaps also repeat it in reverse direction. Incidentally, this was the first time we saw Ma Yan back from her trip to France. She was radiant, though very busy preparing her entry examinations for Senior High School, in June...
PROJECTS. This trip accompanying the French students has allowed us not only to re-establish contact with our local partners but also to check on the progress of our projects :
At Zhang Jia Shu, the primary school at which we provide free tuition to 200 village children at school age, a small palace revolution had occurred, which led to the appointment of a new director as a result of some internal conflicts. Despite these shake-ups, which now appear to have calmed down, the contract which we concluded last December to ensure free tuition for all children of the village appears to have been honoured throughout : we ascertained this much from various families in the village who assured us that they had not been required to pay any money for the second term, to the villagers’ great satisfaction. We decided to extend this free tuition arrangement to 35 students who will move on to High School at Yuwang (a boarding school) for their fifth year at school. The one remaining problem now is that some families do not want to send their daughters to school even when it is free. We will have to of incentives that can make them change their minds.
We have also been able to bring up, in discussion with a district official, the well construction project for Zhang Jia Shu village, for which we have obtained a ‘sustainable development grant.’ This is a laborious and lengthy process, though, since the village leaders have been dismissed on account of having diverted public funds (the surge of corruption does not stop short even before the poorest of the poor, though, truly, the sums diverted in this way are meagre.). A new school management team will be appointed, which for us means a new set of local partners with whom to negotiate.
Some good news from Yuwang : work on the new school building has recommenced after an interruption of several months. Completion of the building work is expected this September. This will enable us to equip two of the new classrooms as computer rooms, a project for which we have already received special funding thanks to a special campaign last year. We are now discussing with the director of Yuwang High School how to help with building new dormitories. This is a project for which we might yet again try to enlist the help of some large companies, such as French companies with Chinese subsidiaries or branches.
Ma Gao Zhuang village : the old deputy director of Yuwang High School, after being appointed director of a school in the community of Ma Gao Zhuang which is situated at a few dozen kilometres’ distance from there, wrote to us last April informing us of his transfer but also about the desolate conditions at his new school in Ma Gao Zhuang. We had had an excellent working relationship with him and so we took the opportunity of visiting him during our last trip out. The school there, which is a combined Primary and High School, has 350 students altogether and they are visibly poorer even than those of Yuwang. We decided to provide some on the spot financial support in the form of twenty bursaries for children from the most destitute families, to be distributed when the students return to school for the new term. We also made a donation ‘in kind’ of some urgently needed material : the school is in need of practically everything. And beyond this, a significant quantity of clothes collected by the Lycée Français at Beijing will be sent to the school at Ma Gao Zhuang, to be distributed at the end of their school year. We will also fund a big end-of-year banquet, as we have done already at Yuwang, to everyone’s great pleasure and approval.
The widening of our commitment which all these new activities represent has been made possible by strengthened support for our Association. Our commitments remain economically sound, and the new ones will not threaten previously made commitments in any way. By September, a total of about 350 students will be receiving support from the Association. In addition, three educational institutions, all belonging to the region which Ma Yan has brought close to us, will be receiving our support in the form of teaching and other materials. So your support is needed more than ever...
All the best

 

Pierre Haski

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7 avril 2004 3 07 /04 /avril /2004 00:00
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Letter 23 - April 2004

Dear all,
First of all, some news from Ma Yan, who has now returned to her village and to school from her fabulous trip to Paris. Her mother rang us to say she had found her transformed - in a good sense - as well as matured. And Ma Yan herself has written to us to thank us for giving her this opportunity to discover Paris : ‘It was wonderful. I have met so many new uncles and aunts who are helping us, as well as friendly, smiling teachers and students. I was very happy. I have also been to lots of places and great monuments, and all in just a few days...’ Ma Yan addresses these greetings to all the members of the Association : ‘You are wonderful people who work so hard to help us. We will never forget you. You are angels in our hearts.’ Ma Yan’s father, who had accompanied his daughter to Beijing for the first time, on the occasion of her departure from Beijing for Paris, asked his daughter to add a few lines from him : ‘Thanks for having given Ma Yan the opportunity to go abroad. And thanks also for having allowed me to go to Beijing ; this is the greatest journey I have ever made in my life. After this, I have nothing to complain of. Thanks again ; you have done so much for us.’
On her arrival back home, Ma Yan had a surprise in the form of a visit from a British journalist from the british daily newspaper The Daily Telegraph, who was already waiting for her. Following this visit Richard Spence published a long piece in his paper on the entire Ma Yan saga, including the history of our Association (read the full report in our "in the press" section) ...he interviewed her on her journey to Paris, and asked her if she did not feel intimidated by the great changes that have come about in her life. ‘She is matter-of-fact about her visit, and does not understand a question about whether she is intimidated by the changes to her life. "How could I not be happy ?",’ he writes.
In his article, this journalist also relates the story of Yang Juan, one of our bursary recipients, whom her parents wanted to withdraw from school. ‘I was furious, because people’s beliefs here are so backward !’ The journalist adds to this : ‘Now, thanks to Ma Yan, she is also at secondary school. The money raised by Libération’s readers and then the book royalties has been used for a fund to support other children from the village, particularly girls, whose lives are now also being transformed.’ But the journalist also mentions some perverse effects of our intervention in this place, for instance the fact that some of the children are now keeping diaries in the hope of somehow replicating the ‘miracle’ that happened to Ma Yan... He quotes the director of the primary school of Zhang Jia Shu village who stresses that the positive effects of our initiative far surpass the negative ones. Today, Ma Yan and her fellow students are concentrating on one goal : the final exams at the end of the year, which are coming nearer. In Ma Yan’s case the exams will decide whether or not she can move on to Senior High School and, depending on her grades, to what kind of Senior High School.
Some further news :
BURSARIES : at the suggestion of the director of Yuwang High School we have taken on nine new bursary recipients, whose families were unable to pay the school fees for the second term, and who consequently were threatened with being expelled from school.
SALE : On 10 April there was an auction of works of art at the gallery ‘China Arts Seasons’ in Beijing, the profits of which were given to our Association. About fifty contemporary Chinese artists had donated works, all of which were sold at the fairly reasonable price of about 300 Euro. The exhibition and sale drew a number of visitors and bidders to this gallery located in Dashanzi, an industrial district of Beijing, which has in fact become one of the most highly reputed places for contemporary art in Beijing. It should be noted that this initiative came from the Chinese director of the Gallery, after a public reading of Ma Yan’s Diary in Chinese. She allowed us not only to take the profits, but also gave us an opportunity to inform a new section of the Chinese public about our initiative. Several local journals made mention of this auction. Our thanks go to Nie Mu, Shi Shi, the entire team at China Arts Seasons, and all the artists who have generously donated some of their works.
CONFERENCES : Also in China, I have been invited to convene a conference on our experience and on the school education of girls in Ningxia province, at Fudan University Shanghai on 17 May. The Conference is part of a programme entitled ‘V-Day at Fudan’, which is intended to raise awareness of the general situation of women. This programme will also include two performances of the ‘Vagina Monologues’ and five conferences/workshops on topics relating to women in China.
THEATRE : A bit later, in Dunkerque in northern France, on 19 June, extracts from Ma Yan’s diary will be acted out by young people from La Maison de Quartier de l’île Jeanly, from the Carré de la Vieille et des glacis, together with the elementary school of Glacis. The performance is part of a festival "Les quais de Chine", organised by the theatre company of Bateaufeu. The character of Ma Yan will be represented by a human-size puppet, made and played by Remi Verbraeken.
All best wishes

Pierre Haski

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7 mars 2004 7 07 /03 /mars /2004 00:00
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Letter 22 - March 2004



Hello,
March has been an important month for us : Ma Yan went to Paris ! She was invited by the publishing house Ramsay to attend the 2004 Paris Book fair celebrating Chinese literature. She went with He Yanping, the translator of the diary who is very involved in the association. This was 16 year old Ma Yan’s first trip outside of China : she not only discovered France, but also understood the impact of her story abroad and the size of the support for the Ningxia children who were not as lucky as she was. It was also a wonderful moment for us as we watched the young girl who three years ago had no future, blossomed into a young girl full of optimism.
The most wonderful moment in the whole trip was, without a doubt, when we went to visit the ORT high school in the Paris suburbs. Two years ago a teacher, Emmanuelle Polack and her students read the story of Ma Yan in the newspaper and collected 100 euros which they sent to Ma Yan. This time, the students gathered again and gave a warm welcome to the young Chinese girl ; they had written poems, slogans, all translated in Chinese, they had drawn maps of China, posters to encourage people to participate in the association. They welcomed Ma Yan with a loud “Mayan we will never forget you !” which deeply moved her.
Ma Yan thanked the French children for their help, and talked with them with emotion and happiness. She had lunch in the very plain school cafeteria, which still seemed luxurious compared to the one in her high school. She actually enjoyed that meal more than any of the other meals at fancy restaurants. She left the school with gifts and with a small book telling the story of the children’s involvement and the special link that was created between their town - Villiers le Bel - and Ma Yan’s Yuwan.
The meetings with French schoolchildren were by far the most emotional moments of her stay in France. During the Book Fair, at the Ramsay booth, Ma Yan met some readers of the youth magazine Okapi. These readers asked her extremely detailed questions, which showed how much they had learnt from Ma Yan’s diary. On Wednesday, which was a special young readers day at the Book Fair, the booth was filled with children, who have been the most devoted readers of the book.
During her stay in France she also had the opportunity to go and visit the Liberation offices. Liberation is the newspaper which first published her story. There, she met 30 of the founders of the association. Ma Yan thanked them and talked with emotion about the impact that the association had had on her life and on the life of all the children that we are now helping. The founders appreciated meeting this young smiling girl, who has - incredibly - remained herself through this life changing experience. She never forgets where she’s from and never forgets all those who are now living in the nightmare that she was so lucky to escape. This informal meeting was also the opportunity to talk about the current actions of the association.
In the midst of all the interviews and meetings, we managed to set aside some time for tourism. Ma Yan had seen the Eiffel Tower on tv once, and kept her eyes wide open throughout the visits, including the visit of Chinatown ! He Yanping and Ma Yan were also welcomed in the house of our friend Linda and her family. Ma Yan was thus exposed to the life of a typical Parisian family. During her stay she continued writing in her diary because her high school classmates had requested a detailed report on her trip. She left with thousands of pens - pens are such an powerful symbols in her story - sent by one of our association’s members who had some leftover merchandise from a publicity campaign. She will distribute them to her schoolmates.
The second book “Ma Yan and her sisters” published by Ramsay was launched during the Book Fair. Half of the author’s profits will go the Association. The book is in part the sequel to the first as it tells what happened to Ma Yan after the beginning of this adventure and recounts the creation of the association, its goals and its achievements. It also traces the portraits of other young girls from Ningxia, with the letters they sent us. Some of those letters have been included in the monthly newsletters. The book also focused on Ma Shiping, Ma Yan’s cousin who was forcibly married at 15. We met her in December last year and she’s now the mother of a little girl.
Ma Yan and He Yanping’s visit and the publication of the second book will certainly have an impact on the association which still attracts interest from a wide group of people. The forgotten children of Ningxia have become a “cause celebre” and we are hoping that all the latest media flurry will result in concrete actions in China. This is our goal for the next few months.
We will benefit from a great new tool : The association website - www.enfantsduningxia.org - which was created and built by a group of Chinese students (and their teacher) currently enrolled in the ENST - the national school of telecommunications in Paris. Their work is already impressive and will be even more so in the next few weeks. The site will be available in French English and Chinese and will contain the archives of the association, with all the monthly newsletters, photos, and the presentation of the current actions.
The adventures of Ma Yan’s Diary have just begun... I am writing this newsletter from Barcelona, Spain, where I am launching the Spanish edition of the book. Then, on to Lisbon, Portugal, for the Portuguese launch. The book will be published in English on July 1st. All told it will be available in 14 languages, which will help spread its message around the world.
I hope that even more children from this terribly poor farmland region will benefit from our actions.

Pierre Haski

 

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7 février 2004 6 07 /02 /février /2004 00:00
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Letter 21 - February 2004

The month of March promises to be rich in events...
MA YAN GOES TO PARIS. If all goes well Ma Yan will come to France to attend the Book Fair (Salon de Livre) in Paris from 19 to 24 March. China is this year’s guest of honour at the Salon. Ma Yan has been invited by the publisher of her diary, Ramsay. He Yanping, who transalted the diary and who has been a very active member of our initiative in Ningxia, will be travelling with her. This will be the first meeting of its kind ! Ma Yan’s journey to France is not easy to organise, and there is still some risk that the project may be cancelled at the last moment. But if everything is confirmed, then the members of the Association will be able to meet Ma Yan on Wednesday, 24 March, at 6 pm.
We will also be at Ramsay’s stand at the Book Fair on Tuesday 21 March, Monday 22 March (the professionals’ day), and on Wednesday 24 March (the children’s day). You are most welcome to pay us a visit there. We will try to arrange a programme for Ma Yan that reconciles the publisher’s demands with those of the Association - and also with giving her a chance to discover Paris ! And at the same time we must not unduly extend a journey which comes right in the middle of her school year. During her stay in France, Ma Yan will meet with students of the College of Villiers le Bel, former students of our friend Emmannuelle’s, who were among the first to show solidarity with Ma Yan helping her to return to High School.
Mid-March will see the coming out of a new book entitled Ma Yan and Her Sisters (published by Ramsay), which will narrate the history of Ma Yan herself, of Ma Shiping, her cousin who was forced to marry, and also of some other young girls whom we are helping in Ningxia , on the basis of the letters they have sent us, and of the encounters we have made there during our trips to Ningxia. It also contains a detailed account of the history of our Association. The Association will get half the profits from the copyright in this book.
The last event in March, for those of you who live in the South of France, is a conference on 31 March at Nîmes, organised jointly by the Children of Ningxia and the Centre for Information on the Rights of Women and the Rights of the Family, at the initiative of one of our supporters. You will receive an invitation shortly, and this could be a good opportunity to get to know some other members of the Association living in the same region.
Prior to this, this month we are also having two new editions of Ma Yan’s Diary coming out, in Spain and in Portugal.
CONTRIBUTIONS. In February, during her school holidays, Ma Yan and her mother came to Beijing for a second time, this time at the invitation of a real estate developer in the capital, Pan Shiyi, who had bought five thousand copies of the Diary to be distributed in the schools of Ningxia and of the neighbouring province of Gansu. Gansu is also a very poor province and moreover Pan Shiyi’s own home province. There was a big ceremony, reported on in the Chinese media, to mark the occasion. He Yanping and I also participated in a number of broadcast events dedicated to Ma Yan’s Diary in the province of Hebei, which will start being broadcast there from the beginning of March. Among the other initiatives taken within China to promote the Diary, a Gallery for contemporary Art in Beijing, China Arts & Seasons, which will launch an exhibition of Chinese women artists’ work on 6 March, has decided to have a special sale of art work on 10 April, the profit of which will go to the Association. The Gallery will be presenting the Diary in French and Chinese, as well as an introduction to the work of the Association, throughout their current exhibition. Again, in China, this is the first event of its kind for us.
Also on the subject of contributions in February, Bertrand Michaud, the Asian director of the company Hermès, sent us a very handsome giant cardboard facsimile cheque, the amount of which represented the profits made from last September’s special sales at the Beijing shop of Hermes, all of which have been dedicated to the Association. All the shop’s staff attended the ceremony marking this occasion. The sum we have received will allow us to set up a computer room at Yuwang High School ; if all goes well, as early as next September. Many thanks, finally, to the French and Chinese students at the National School of Telecommunications (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécoms of Paris, ENST) in Paris, who have started a project for - finally ! - setting up an internet website of the Association. It will be trilingual (French, English and Mandarin) and will contain both the written memory of the Association, and information for those who want to contribute to it.
On another note, the travel plans of the students of the Lycée Français of Hongkong, put on hold last year because of the SARS epidemic, is now back on the agenda. The students and their teachers will go to Yuwang at the end of May, but they have already started collecting funds for some concrete project of co-operation for the benefit of this disadvantaged region.
BURSARIES. As we decided last time we visited the village of Zhang Jia Shu in December, we have paid the tuition fees for about 200 children there to go to primary school. Including the other bursaries we have already given, this means we are now supporting over 250 children to go to school, ranging from students at primary school to students at Senior High School. Their return to school for the new term took place without any problems.
So that is this month’s news...the next step will be taken by Ma Yan herself when she discovers Paris, and finally gets a chance to meet those who have supported her, and are now participating in this initiative of solidarity with other children who did not have her luck. Hope to see you soon, if you are among those who can be part of the upcoming events in France -
With best wishes
Pierre Haski


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7 janvier 2004 3 07 /01 /janvier /2004 00:00
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Letter 20 - January 2004

Dear all,
Since our last trip to Ningxia, we’ve have had many letters from there, especially letters to wish us a good Year of the Serpent ! The school holidays are almost over and the students are preparing to go back to school. The beginning of the second semester will allow us to see if the agreement we have reached with the primary school of Zhang Jia Shu village, for free tuition to all children of school age, really works. We will easily be able to check if the terms of the agreement have been honoured when we visit there next time : The children’s parents should not have to pay a penny now for their children’s tuition. Our regular correspondence with people in the village means we would surely be alerted to any mistake or breach. Let me just remind you that we will be helping more than 250 students at primary school, lower and Senior High School level in this district in the future.
We will also find out if, as we were told, the construction of the new school building at Yuwang will really be resumed at the end of the coming Chinese New Year holidays. As I already mentioned, completion of the new building is a precondition for setting up the new computer rooms in it, for which we have already received a generous donation from the company Hermès (they have given us the proceeds of their special sales last September in their Beijing shop). We hope to be able to realise this project this year. It will mean that the children at Yuwang will gain some minimal access to modern technology and thus will get a chance of success in a future which, for many of them, will be in the cities not the villages.
The completion of the building should also allow us to work out a clear proposal for the renovation of the dormitories. The majority of students are Boarding at Yuwang because they come from surrounding villages, not Yuwang itself. The local government has promised to renovate the dormitories, which are in a pitiful state, but our Association could make a contribution to speeding up this process, which is really urgent.
CORRESPONDENCE. A year ago in January 2003 we got a desperate letter from Ma Shiping, a cousin of Ma Yan’s, who had been taken out of school and married by force at the age of fifteen. Her letter began like this : ‘When you receive this letter, I will already be in the palace of marriage, which is the grave of life.’ When we went to visit her in December, she had just given birth to a small daughter. At fifteen and a half. It was a very sad meeting, because we could only give her a few presents for herself and her baby, but there was nothing now that we could do to change her fate : there she was, married and a mother at age fifteen, when she had been dreaming of receiving an education and discovering life. At the beginning of January we received another letter from Ma Shiping. It shows both the strength of character this girl has, and how sad her situation is.
"Today, I am ending the first month [the month of confinement to one’s room after giving birth]. Am I the same person I used to be, after giving birth ? Whether it is because of how I feel, or because of my situation - I’m certainly not the same today as before. I think I have really understood that if one wants to have a good life, it is better not to feel anything at all.
At the moment when my life went dark, you sent me a letter that was like a burning candle. When I was worried because I had no milk for my baby, you brought me happiness. Your arrival brought nourishment into my life and it made me have enough milk to give her. You have not only helped me in material terms but also spiritually. The love you have shown me, and Aunt He’s [He Yanping’s, the translator’s] attitude, have softened their [her parent’s in law’s] mentality, which is to privilege the boys and to hold girls cheap. You know, after I had taken leave from the god of death and come back to life, you were the first to visit me. When I heard [the day before] that you were coming to see me, I was so happy. I was so moved that I couldn’t sleep all night. But then the next day I couldn’t speak a single sentence. I only wanted to cry ; but I couldn’t cry either. I’m not a common girl. I can’t share my pain with you. I can only eat the bitter fruit myself.
Man has only one life, plants have only one summer. For my life, having met you is enough. I often hear people say that one is happy when one is content with what one has. Today, I am already seeing another Me coming to life. I don’t want her to follow my old path. She is my hope now. I want her to understand why people live in this world and why she has come into it.
At this season of giving thanks, I want to thank you because you gave a second life to my daughter, and also to myself : now I can live among them. But when the gift is too great, one doesn’t give thanks anymore. I can only wish happiness for your entire family from the sincerity of my heart ; pray for a good life for good people. If you have the time I hope very much that you can often come and visit me. Thank you."
A letter that allows us, perhaps, to see through the splendid Chinese decorations put up at this moment as France is celebrating the new lunar year in a spectacular manner, and welcoming the Chinese President here with a lot of pomp and circumstance ...I would not want to conclude on such a sad note, though. Let me remind you that Ma Shiping’s younger sister is the recipient of a bursary from the Association, and that we will do as much as we can to help her avoid the same fate as her older sister’s. Our small gestures weigh very heavy here.
Best wishes


Pierre Haski

 

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7 décembre 2003 7 07 /12 /décembre /2003 00:00
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Letter 19 - December 2003

Dear all,
I managed to spend five days in Ningxia in December, with my assistant, He Yanping, and we were able to meet most of the scolarship recipients as well as the local authorities. But before going any further, I have some great news : we’ve reached an agreement with the Principal and the teachers of the primary school in “Ma Yan’s village “ - Zhang Jia Shu - and have decided to offer free schooling to every child in the village, approx 200 children, by paying for the entire school fees. This news was warmly welcome by the villagers who, once again this year, are facing a severe drought. The schooling fees, to be paid in cash, are such a terrible burden for them that a lot of kids, particularly girls, are taken out of the school.
During our discussions with the school Principal and the teachers, we were told that they were well aware of the villagers’ difficult situation, and had decided to vastly decrease the school fees. In spite of that gesture, half of the villagers were still unable to pay the fees. Thus, when we arrived in the village, the school itself was facing a very difficult financial situation. We made some quick calculation and concluded that, instead of offering 26 scolarships at the former higher rate, we could pay for the entire school fees. We therefore took over the villagers’ debt for the first semester and promised to pay for the entire second semester... approximately $1,500 ! This plainly shows how poor the whole place is.
This decision, aside from being a strong symbolic gesture, has allowed us to solve one of the most disturbing aspect of our action : by choosing who gets a scholarship we were excluding others, creating an inequality which was becoming more and more difficult to face, particularly in the primary school. A quick glance in the school classrooms was enough to prove that everyone in the village lives below the poverty level : the children’s clothes are thread bare, the classrooms are barely heated with coal and do not have any supplies. By offering free school for all we restore equality among the families.
We wrote a contract, discussing the fine points around the table in Ma Yan’s parents’ house, which in 2 paragraphs explains the obligation from the Association to pay for the approximately 200 children’s school fees and from the School to stop asking the parents to repay their depts and to regularly keep the Association informed of the children’s progress in school. This contract was signed by the Primary School Principal, the Imam, the Party Secretary, my assistant He Yanping and myself. A provincial governement official was present and he gave his word that he would closely follow the progress of the agreement.
This represents a fantastic step forward in our decision to help the villagers of Zhang Jai Shu, who, benefiting from the amazing response to Ma Yan’s story, are now better off than the neighbouring villages. This is probably going to become a sore point between the villages, and that will replace the previous unease between the scolarship recipients families and the families who did not receive such help.
With this gesture, we accomplished - on a small scale - what a UN report recommended in early December : “ The Central Chinese Governement must guarantee free school fees for all school children”
We now have 200 children depending on us in the village school, but we are still offering scolarships to the secondary and higher schools. We are currently funding 39 other scolarships, mainly in the secondary school in Yuwang - where the Zhang Jia Shu schoolchildren go after the end of the primary education - and in the Tongxin high school located in the county seat.
We were able to meet most of those kids, and evaluate the impact of the scholarship funds on their lives and encourage them in pursuing their education. Part of our motive for the meetings was to check on the terrible situations that had been described in the letters sent by thoses kids and that had sometimes influenced our decision in allocating a scolarship. What we saw goes well beyond the situations that the children had described. Their lives are straight out of the most dramatic books, but receiving the scolarship has given them an indestructable optimism which enables them to confront all the problems in their lives and which - as Mao would have said- will enable them to move mountains !
In Yuwang we met Ma Xiaomei, a quiet 14 year- old girl with neatly braided hair. She had written us a sad story about her life : her father had died 10 days after having been diagnosed with a cancer which had not been detected earlier because they did not have the money to pay for the doctor’s visit (medical care is not free in China) ; her mother also had a tumor in her head and could not see a doctor for lack of money. We went to her house : her mother had left her farm because she could not work alone in the fields. In Yuwang, she had opened a tiny store - 3m x 4m - in which she lived with her daughter and 2 young sons. She’s skinny and weak. And this woman has a daughter who in spite of this life is an excellent student whith a head full of dreams about her future. Obviously, we immediately offered a scolarship to each of the brothers as well, starting next semester, and gave her some money to go and see a doctor.
Li Xiaoyan started receiving our scholarship in Sept 2003. We had met her last February in the Principal’s office, crying and pleading for him to take her back half way through the school year. We had not understood what was happening. In Sept 2003 she wrote us and reminded us of our meeting, and asked for a scholarship. We had accepted although we were skeptical at the time. How happy we are that she is one of the recepient : at 12 years old, Li Xiaowan stopped going to school because her parents had chosen to use their meager resources for the younger brother’s education. She went to work as a waitress in a mining town restaurant, 100km away from home, with the goal of saving enough money to pay for her own schooling. She earned 100 yuan a month (around $10 dollars) . After eight months of work she had come back and encouraged by one of her uncles had asked the school principal to take her back half way through the school year, which is what we had witnessed. But the following September she had no more money and had decided to ask for our help. At 14, she’s already lived through tragedy yet she is full of optimism and willpower to improve her life.
These stories and many others that we discovered during those few days will be published in a second book, to come out in France next spring by Editions Ramsay. Half of the author’s rights will be given to the Association. My last trip was paid by the Publisher and did not cost a cent to the Association. We are always trying to limit our expenditures to postage, bank charges or photocopies costs. The Association does not have to pay for office rent, salaries nor are there any overhead. Everyone involved in the actions of the Association is a volunteer, whether in Paris, Beijing or elsewhere and we hope to be able to continue our work this way so that we may expand our involvement with the children.
In Yuwang, we met with the medium school principal. His office had collapsed since our last visit. The conditions in which the students and the teachers live and work are unbelievable. In front of his office is a brand new building, 4 floors high. It’s the new school, financed by the state and for which we had pledged an investment in computers. But the construction was interrupted in March for lack of money and still hasn’t started again. In Yinchuan, the provincial capital, an administrative civil servant assured us that construction was to start again soon and finished next year... He also assured us that the official declarations about a larger public action in the countryside would, next year, be translated in financial help. Let’s see. In any case, this official person thought positively of our action , which added to the succesful launch of “Ma Yan’s Diary” in China, enables us to implement our actions more decisively.
In France our friend Emmanuelle Polack started an action in her class, using “Ma Yan’s diary” and this has now been officially approved of and is growing. Anyone interested in her project can read it (in French !) at : www.enseignants.com/partenaires/pg/glossaire
We have been asked if the diary in Chinese could be found in France, we do not think so but we will certainly ship it to anyone interested, the total price of shipping and book purchase will amount to 10 euros. Please send your request with a check and shipping address to the Association.
To conclude, we are asking for your support. The book is still attracting new supporters in many countries, but we rely on word of mouth. Please forward this message to those around you and encourage them to check out our Association. The amazingly courageous Children of Ningxia are counting on you.


Pierre Haski Enfants du Ningxia

 

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9 septembre 2003 2 09 /09 /septembre /2003 00:00
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Letter 18 - September 2003


Hello
The beginning of the new school year has indeed been full of events. To begin with the coming out of Ma Yan’s Diary in Chinese, and a trip to Beijing by Ma Yan and her mother for the launch of the book : it is published by a private Chinese publishing company (which had to go through a state publishing house to get the book out on the market, though). The book contains the entire diary, the foreword and part of the accompanying documentary text of the French edition. Actually, some of the French texts would make no sense in a book intended for Chinese readers.
On the other hand, a Postscript has been added, to narrate subsequent events over the past year, in France and Europe as well as in China. No censorship at all has taken place, and the editor only asked that one word and one phrase in the foreword and postscript be toned down. This was done without changing the essential meanings of the sentences.
The launch of the book was a powerful moment. I brought some friends in Beijing together, friends who are sympathetically observing or even actively supporting our initiative. This launch party was also attended by many visitors to China, such as the French delegation at the Beijing book fair, including french publisher Antoine Gallimard, intrigued by the return to China of an originally Chinese text that first appeared in France. Li Zhensheng, the ‘photographer of the Cultural Revolution’, whose photographs are currently being exhibited at the Hôtel de Sully in Paris, was stopping over at Beijing and also came to meet Ma Yan...
The following day, on 20 September, there was an encounter with the Chinese press and a group of children from Beijing, at the Chinese publisher’s initiative. It was a very emotional moment when Ma Yan began to tell the story of one of her cousin who had to break off her school education at the age of 16 and was married by force by her family, and who is now already pregnant. Ma Yan read out to the journalists the correspondence which I had already passed on to you in translation in a recent letter, and which can be found in the postscript of the chinese edition of the book.
Herself in tears, Ma Yan explained to what degree she feared the mere word ‘marriage’ today, and publicly thanked us for allowing her to escape this fate. Half of the journalists were in tears, too, and they gave her a resounding applause. Ma Yan, her mother and I also arranged for an appearance on Chinese Central Television (CCTV), which will be broadcast at the beginning of October, during the general vacation the national holiday on 1 October. On this occasion, too, quite strong things were said, even though the interviewing host steered the conversation more off into the direction of ‘fairytale’ and away from the reality in poor rural areas...
This strong media coverage and the coming out of the book itself, with a first print run of 50,000 copies and at a fairly low price of 16 Yuan RMB (less than two Euro), give our initiative a welcome boost and will assuredly help us with our projects. But most importantly, this will allow us to feed into the debate on education of the poorest in society which is currently ongoing in China ; for even though many journalists are mainly interested in the anecdotal aspects of this adventure, the social background against which it happened remains always present.
And the story happened just at a moment when a public debate on this subject has taken off in China, even though one cannot yet discern any signs of a change in direction on the part of the Chinese government. I well recall the statements made by a special rapporteur to the UN on the right to education only a few days earlier. The rapporteur severely criticised the meagreness of public expenditure on educational matters in Chinese (just over 2% of the GDP, when Unesco is recommending 6%, ad the former Chinese prime minister had promised to go up to 4% by the year 2000 !)
Ma Yan and her mother have returned to their village with their minds full of memories of Beijing, and happy to have been able to share their emotions, as well as to share the story of the fate of the children of Ningxia, with some inhabitants of the great Chinese cities.
HERMES. On quite a different level, the french luxury goods firm Hermès conducted sales in Beijing on 20 September, the profit of which had been dedicated to our Association. These sales have been a big success, and should yield a considerable though as yet uncertain sum supporting our initiative. The date of the sales event accidentally fell on the day of the coming out of the book, and therefore Ma Yan and her mother came to see showroom. It was a strange way of being plunged into the world of luxury - a cultural shock, albeit one turned to a good purpose of solidarity. Thanks, at any rate, go to Bertrand Michaud, the director of Hermès in Hongkong, for his initiative.
BURSARIES. The beginning of the new school year in September has passed off well in Ningxia and has allowed us again to increase the number of bursary recipients, thanks to the increase of funds of the Association, which is happening slowly but surely. 56 bursaries were distributed, compared to around forty last semester, it being understood that when we grant a bursary, we undertake to grant it for the entire duration of the recipient’s studies, however long that is.
The money was sent by postal order directly to the families, and Ma Yan’s mother has just called us to tell us that people were dancing in the streets of the village, the money having just arrived. Several other mothers have also rung us to tell us that we ‘saved’ their family by this transfer. On the other hand, too, we received an avalanche of letters from children asking also to be supported through bursaries over the following few days : the needs are, as one knows, still immense. We will try to get to the village during the next few weeks, in order to see if some of these cases can be sorted out, but it is difficult to take any action based on just a letter.
Some delays, however, are occurring as regards the equipment for the computer room. The construction of the new building, which had begun the previous year, was interrupted during the SARS outbreak, and has still not been resumed, as the government suspended its transfers of funding. It is difficult for us to send the computers into an environment where they would be exposed to dust and adverse climatic conditions, and would not last long. This is yet another reason why we have to head for the village in order to see for ourselves how to get round this obstacle.
A similar difficulty has arisen with regard to the solar panels donated by a Chinese company : there are currently no shower rooms for which the panels could be used, and indeed the roofs of the current buildings would collapse if they were installed upon them. In this respect too, choices will have to be made.
So here you have some updates on a new school year which has brought some by no means unimportant events and developments. There will not fail to be big fallout from the coming out of the book in Chinese. The story will be followed up...
Best wishes
Pierre Haski

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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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Letter 15 - May 2003

Hello,
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.
Regards,
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

Hello,
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.
Regards,
Pierre Haski
Beijing, 26 April 2003

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