Today, China is a rising superpower, a country experiencing unrivaled economic growth and modernization. Yet there is a tremendous socio-economic difference between the wealthy urban China known to the Western world and the poor rural China still covering most of the country's territory. This past summer, I worked with one particular community in rural China that has suffered from this difference.
In the 1990s, thousands of rural peasants in several central provinces, notably Henan, were infected with HIV/AIDS when, to alleviate their poverty, they sold their blood in places that used poor sterilization techniques. After an initial cover-up of the crisis by local officials, the Chinese government has since begun to offer free medical treatment to the country's HIV/AIDS patients. However, while medicine is now available and the infection rate has been curbed there, the difficulty remains of helping the affected families deal with the deepening poverty and stigma in their communities. In an area where a large portion of a working-age generation has succumbed to HIV/AIDS, the blood-selling disaster represents today a deeply rooted socio-economic problem.
This problem is particularly reflected in the situation of a growing number of central China children orphaned and affected by the epidemic. Most of these children are not HIV-positive themselves. Yet while their parents are sick or dying, the children often lack the funds or motivation to continue in school. Socially isolated, growing up without the love and care of their parents, and having no means to provide for themselves, many of these children run the risk of ending up destitute, illiterate, and alone. Today, extremely few programs are in place to ensure the psychological and long-term wellbeing of these children.
The summer of my freshman year, I teamed up with the Foundation and, with a Swarthmore Foundation grant, created the China Memory Book Project. The goal was to help the children emotionally deal with their stress through the making of memory books, similar to scrapbooks.
The memory books were somewhat different from those made by many African AIDS communities. First, they were made by the children themselves rather than by their parents. Second, they were printed "activity booklets" with guiding prompts rather than blank pages. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they focused on the children's future and not just on their past. For instance, the children were not only prompted to describe their parents, their family traditions, and any worries, but also to record contact information for relatives, their progress in school, and their personal achievements and aspirations. Through the Chi Heng Foundation, memory books were given to over 3,000 children in Henan and neighboring provinces, along with collected writing and drawing supplies.
For the project, I worked with Chinese university students in creating Big Brother Big Sister Mentorship Programs for the Chi Heng Foundation children, with the university students as the big brothers and big sisters. From this summer on, the mentorship program will take place every summer at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, Tsinghua University in Beijing, Fudan University in Shanghai, and possibly others in the future. In the end, I hope a relationship with the university student mentors will help the children learn to leave their isolation behind and look forward to the many common grounds they actually share with people different from them.
Together with the Chinese university students, I spent my summer playing and interacting with several dozen children. While they were shy, they really enjoyed pairing up with their mentors and many were inspired to continue on to university. We are now thinking of ways to make the mentorship program more helpful for the children when they return home, for example, by having mentors visit the children's home villages during winter break.
How will China, with the world's largest population, be able to deal with its population- and resource-related problems, including an AIDS epidemic? And how will China, with the world's fourth-largest economy, be able to deal with such an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity? Whatever the future brings, I hope at least that these children I've been working with will not be left behind.