WANG QI IS TYPICAL OF children who wander Sichuan's train stations. At 14 she had only four years' schooling but plenty of street smarts. She knew how to steal, how to smoke, how to drink, how to survive in jail when she got caught.
Every day there are dozens of children like Wang Qi roaming this and other train stations across China. Some will grow up this way. A few at the station in Sichuan, for instance, say they've lived there for seven years or more.
Not all these children are orphans, strictly speaking. Wang Qi left home when her mother died. Her father remarried and had a son. In China's one-child culture, sons are valued more than daughters and she was gradually pushed from the nest.
Thousands and thousands of Chinese children have been abandoned in this manner since the Chinese government began enforcing its one-child rule more than 20 years ago. Facing onerous government fines for having a second child, many families skirt the law by turning extra children out onto the street.
Homelessness and petty crime are sometimes the sunniest prospects awaiting these kids. At the other end of the spectrum are children lured into prostitution or trafficked to other countries.
A few, like Wang Qi, will find their way to an orphanage or shelter, or, as in her case, will be persuaded into a private group home by good Samaritans. Groups run by Christians and other private nonprofit organizations find projects to aid disadvantaged children increasingly welcomed by Chinese authorities. China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, running an enormous network of state orphanages, in its recent past earned a bad reputation for warehousing children in what became known in the media as "dying rooms." To repair the image, bureaucrats have opened doors to private alternatives (especially those with foreign investors in their train). Most are a vast improvement over state care but house less than 10 children at a time.
And the one-child rule isn't the only trend fracturing family life. Urban resettlement is literally bulldozing cozy neighborhoods that once formed the means of survival in China's densely populated cities. Frenzied facelifts, most notable in Shanghai and Beijing, have only intensified as China's 2008 Olympics approaches.
To make way for massive residential high-rises, shopping, and office centers in the capital, construction crews move in overnight to destroy traditional neighborhoods where three generations once lived alongside each other in courtyard settings, known as hutongs.
Wrecking balls have reduced Beijing's hutongs to quaint tourist relics and shunted former residents into sterile skyrises or-worse-left them homeless. Along Beijing highways a dozen cranes are visible in any direction. Construction zones draped in jazzy slogans, like "Use complimentary strength to bring prosperity!" fail to paper over the social upheaval caused by demolition projects that swallow hundreds of homes.
The missing link in mass urban-renewal projects is private property rights. Families have no lasting legal claims to their homes, even if they've lived in them for generations. Zheng Enchong, a Shanghai lawyer trying to represent 500 residents evicted from their homes, was scheduled to be tried in secret on Aug. 28 for "illegally providing state secrets to entities outside of China." Mr. Zheng was arrested in June after he filed a lawsuit claiming local officials colluded with a wealthy property developer to deprive the residents of their homes.
In Beijing one private group serving disadvantaged youth also finds itself in the battle to save the old neighborhoods. Beijing Hui Ling is a rare Chinese charity begun three years ago by two social workers, one British, one Chinese. Beijing Hui Ling runs four homes currently serving 18 youths, all learning disabled or physically handicapped. Only three of these are true orphans, transferred from state orphanages due to their disabilities, and now in long-term foster care at Hui Ling.
The homes operate out of Dashizuo Hutong and derive structure from the traditional courtyard setting: communal living in the center with wings for each family generation. In this case house parents share a courtyard home, and daily chores, with students.
The organization also runs a training center, as well as an arts-and-crafts workshop in the community. With travel agencies, they contract tourist visits of the hutong area, including rickshaw rides. Beijing Hui Ling youths assist with the tours and sell handmade crafts to the visitors.
"In a sense we are indirectly trying to protect this lifestyle, if not the actual architecture," said co-founder Jane Pierini. "We have a stake in protecting these areas, seeing that our work is well established in these mature communities."
But, she concedes, "We aren't here to look cute. Of course we will have to expand into modern, less mature communities."
Groups like Beijing Hui Ling face much the same potential for upheaval as their clients. Ms. Pierini said the neighborhood is "supposed to be a protected area, but no one is quite sure what the definition of protected is."
Likewise the group enjoys local popularity and acceptance, but must nonetheless thread its way through the vast government bureaucracy. Beijing Hui Ling initially registered with the city's Industrial and Commercial Department like any other private company, because that was the only official means available to nonprofits.
Now the government will register nonprofits through the Ministry of Civil Affairs. But as promotion material from Beijing Hui Ling notes, such groups "are working through the bureaucratic obstacles [faced by the majority of grass-roots organizations] to obtain the appropriate status."
In the past two years, the government has warmed to private nonprofits, making contributions to them tax-deductible, even for multinationals doing business in Beijing who are fully taxed. Effective this year, religious nonprofits may also register to do charity work.
But apparatchik-like control permeates the bureaucracy. Fines still apply for "unregistered theological training," and any religious activity the government considers illegal will lead to confiscation of property.
Local officials, too, can be arbitrary. In central China last month they used the new procedures to take action against the privately run shelter that assisted Wang Qi. Local authorities ordered the facility closed after bureaucrats from the Religious Affairs Bureau complained that Bible material was used to teach about a dozen homeless youth. Officials said it was illegal to use the material to teach anyone under 18 years old.
Staff workers at the home had no warning that they had fallen out of favor with local authorities who have, until now, endorsed their program. One worker connected to the shelter said the authorities confiscated not only the illegal material but also other assets, including cash, and for two days detained staff workers for questioning.
Resolving such disputes used to depend entirely on guanxi, or political connections. Shelter operators say they have seen government relations with private groups improve to where they at least have the possibility through China's nascent legal system to correct the injustices that arise.
A local attorney approached shelter workers to assist them in legal action aimed to reopen the home. "We have legal rights," said one sponsor of the shelter, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing ongoing negotiations. "If we can succeed in this fight, it will be not only for this home but so that we can do more in other areas, too."
Private groups with their small numbers are succeeding where big state institutions have not: in long-term results. By redirecting delinquents, helping with school fees and, in some cases, raising money to cover multiple children, they are making it possible for "orphans" to return to their families. With mediation and other assistance, Wang Qi now lives with her family again and is going to school.