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Discovering the Indigent in Developing Economies

Mises Daily: Friday, January 14, 2005 by

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Oliver Twist is alive today and recovering in a hospital in Beijing. The Dickensian saga of 13-year-old Xu Qian Qian fills one column on the front page of the Wall Street Journalfor December 7, 2004 and, with color photos and maps, a full page inside Section A.

Here is documented the story of one of the millions of disabled children in China, albeit with a very atypical ending. This story, which begins with the perhaps unusual devotion of Xu's family in keeping and raising a girl baby badly deformed at birth, proceeds through a straitened childhood in the family of a poor farmer in a remote village in northern China to the suicide of her mother, her "purchase" by what might be called an eleemosynary entrepreneur, her training to beg in a large, rich city in the south, her rescue by a Christian with a flair for publicity, and a procession of events in between that illuminate issues in dealing with the disadvantaged in the world's largest country in a way that no book, or library, of statistics could ever do.

China today may resemble Victorian England of Dickens's day more than its enormous size and gleaming skyscrapers might at first suggest. Its still-primitive economy is growing at a rate comparable to growth rates in the early Industrial Revolution, factories are being built and staffed, new industries are developing, and great prosperity is enjoyed by the entrepreneurial classes even while the rural areas from which untrained labor flows to the burgeoning cities lag behind at present. Also like Victorian England, China today has virtually no "social safety net" of the sort commonly operated by government in more-developed economies like the United States and today's England.

Xu's (her last name, given first in the Chinese custom) experience, because it is happening in the present day rather than 150 years ago, and because it has already been extensively documented in the Wall Street Journal and presumably other articles, affords us a detailed glimpse into what may typically happen to disadvantaged children in the sort of developing economy that is China and a number of other countries today, and was England and most of today's developed economies a century or more ago. It is, perhaps, the story of Oliver Twist in real-time video, rather than in Dickens's bathetic verbiage.

The picture isn't pretty—in fact, it's downright ugly, as one would expect in the case of a severely disabled child born into a poor family in a society that, for all its recent growth in certain regions and industries, remains hardscrabble and undercapitalized across vast regions of territory and humanity.

In recent times even more than in Dickens's time, the Oliver Twist urban myth has aroused pity and a sense of outrage in the increasing portion of the population that has all its life experienced far greater material plenty than prevailed in the back streets of Nineteenth-Century London. The contrast between Xu's China and the wealthy West is all the greater for the absence of the time gap across which we view Dickens's tales from here and now.

While Oliver Twist was able-bodied and Xu was born with spina bifida that rendered her unable to walk or control her bladder and bowels, Xu was born into an intact family whose male head is alive to this day, while Twist was orphaned from birth. Thus, they may both be considered seriously disabled in the human world, particularly as children.

Twist, however, was a boy in England, while Xu was born a girl in China, a hazardous situation in China since the One Child policy was enacted in 1971. Since this policy limiting families to one child each took effect, girls have been slighted in favor of boys by many couples who preferred their one child to be a male. "Slighted" here means, at the very least, total disassociation from their parents, often by a process amounting to the Oriental equivalent of partial-birth abortion.

The program, officially abandoned in recent years, was never as rigorously enforced in China's rural areas as in its cities, but a disabled (unproductive) child was a burden that few farming families were in any position to bear in any case. And this burden may have contributed to the suicide of Xu's mother when Xu was nine, leaving Xu and her younger brother in the sole care of their father.

When Twist ran away from the workhouse he was born in, he fell in with Fagin, master and recruiter to a gang of orphans who picked pockets and committed other petty crimes under Fagin's tutelage. Fagin in Xu Qian Qian's story is played by one Gong Qingping, who is now serving an eight-year prison sentence for child abduction despite the fact that Xu's father willingly turned his daughter over to Gong under misrepresented premises that her fatigued or even desperate father may have been quite willing to accept despite the unlikeliness of Gong's promise to employ his daughter. In a sense, of course, Gong did employ young Xu—as a beggar on the streets of a succession of large cities, and he trained her in effective begging along with housing her, feeding her, and providing the rest of the considerable care that Xu required merely to survive.

The reporter, who may never have noted the occasional scandals involving government-run orphanages in China and other collectivized countries, notes that "China dismantled its Communist-inspired system of benefits" at the same time as it adopted the economic reforms that have led to the phenomenal advances of the Chinese economy over the past twenty years.

While the article proceeds from this observation to an analysis of the explosive increase in begging in China's cities, it leaves unmentioned the fact that, under Communism, no one could spare the alms on which China's hordes of beggars thrive today, quite aside from the numbers of disabled children who would simply be euthanized under the former universally impoverished regime. The article does note that successful beggars appear to take in as much as ten times the amounts earned by farmers such as Xu's father.

The very emergence of indigent, pitiable characters in society is a harbinger of growing general prosperity, perverse though that may seem. The words of Ludwig von Mises serve to explain both Twist's Victorian England and Xu's neo-capitalistic China:

The problem of the incapacitated is a specific problem of human civilization and of society. Disabled animals must perish quickly. They either die of starvation or fall prey to the foes of their species. Savage man had no pity on those who were substandard. With regard to them many tribes practiced those barbaric methods of ruthless extirpation to which the Nazis resorted in our time. The very existence of a comparatively great number of invalids is, however paradoxical, a characteristic mark of civilization and material well-being.

Or, in the words of a gullible Western tourist admiring the apparently universal health and vitality of the citizens of a collective society, "Where are all the crippled and sick people I see so many of in other places?" to which the answer came back, "Oh, they're all dead."

The article contains reports of extensive plans of the Chinese government to sweep the streets of China's cities clean at least of child beggars and, necessarily, plans to erect shelters in which the children so collected can be housed, at least until they can be returned to their parents, if these can be found and persuaded to accept their children back. Any special benefits to be extended to disabled children among these are not mentioned, nor is it mentioned who will pay for the collection, housing, and returning activities.

But it isn't necessary to mention who will pay for these, of course: they will be paid for by taxpayers, regardless of whether said taxpayers wish these activities to be carried out, or wish to pay for them. Whatever else may be said for Xu's lucrative begging activities and the role of her employer/abductor/guardian, it can be said that those who supported her did so of their own free will. Now, Xu no longer plies her "trade," and she may now or in the future be a ward of the state. The fates of three other disabled children found in Gong's apartment are likewise not specified.

Xu, at least, is no longer begging, but Children's Hope International is still rattling the cup for her on the Internet, rather than on a footbridge in Guangzhou. If you visit www.chifoundation.org, you will find the opportunity to donate money to her cause. And as a private entity subsisting on the voluntary donations of private individuals, Children's Hope International represents the principal way known today for caring for destitute people outside the ambit of government, bureaucracy, and taxation.

For all Xu's utter innocence in her plight, her tragedy has spread to those around her. Her mother (who was, of course, also her brother's mother and her father's wife) was driven to suicide, and her erstwhile master Gong Qingping is serving a prison term of eight years. And for all Gong's apparent cruelty in lacerating Xu's feelingless legs, enterprises like his support many thousands of abandoned and disabled children across China, and not only do so on the proceeds of voluntary donations, but actually seek out disabled children to train in begging. In their ineluctable way, once again, markets and enterprise find and deal with needs of all kinds, even those that seem the most intractable.

China today is poised at the top of a long, slippery slope that Britain, the United States, and many other countries have well begun to descend. To inaugurate involuntary transfers to its "less fortunate" from its "more fortunate" will be a repetition of the collectivist tragedy that one might hope China's still-recent experience could enable it to reject. The main hope that this may not ensue has a dubious provenance: China is not a democracy. Thus, the government does not face quite the temptation that democratically elected regimes face to buy votes with government handouts.

For today, China's people, at least viewed in the aggregate, are on the threshold of joining the ranks of the world's richest people, just as we now know the people of Britain in Dickens's 1838 were. China now has something it may never have had before: rich citizens to tax. Citizens grown rich not from political influence and extortion, but from satisfying the wishes of consumers in China and all over the world. And in far greater numbers than the apparatchiks of the old Party amounted to.

We also know that today, over 24 percent of Britons are at least partially dependent on state handouts, and that their economy has virtually stopped growing. The per-capita income of China's (formerly Britain's) own Hong Kong Special Administrative District had long surpassed that of Britain by 1999.[1] Most of the rich citizens of Victorian England have either left or been taxed back to poverty.

As China goes forward, there is the record of Oliver Twist's England to bear in mind. One hopes the Chinese have read their Dickens. And understood that the story of England transformed to prevent future Oliver Twists is a tale more dismal even than Dickens could write.


N. Joseph Potts studies economics at his home in South Florida. [email] Comment on the Blog.


[1]Bartholomew, James. "The Failure of the British Welfare State" Foundation for Economic Education, December 8, 2004.