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Meet Rose, Age: 12, Price: $200

Her mother sold her to pay down the family debt. Now the girls must sell 50 tattered roses a day on the streets of Beijing, or face a beating. There are more than a million children in China just like her, or worse.

Saturday, April 28, 2001

DIMUCHONG VILLAGE, CHINA -- The Flower Man is greeted with a mixture of dread and relief by the peasants in the bamboo-covered highlands of Hunan, where the water buffalo has yet to meet the tractor and houses are still adorned with posters of Chairman Mao, the province's most famous export.

Nobody knows the Flower Man's name or exactly where he comes from. That, they say, is the way he likes it. Every few months, he makes the 1,500-kilometre trip southwest from China's capital. He climbs up potholed, red-mud roads to farming villages such as Dimuchong, a backward place shrouded in gossamer clouds and so isolated from the rest of China that the 800 residents have never seen a foreign visitor.

His pockets stuffed with cash, he trolls the village, searching out the poorest of China's poor, peasants so destitute they will finally agree to sell their children into servitude.

The Flower Man prefers girls, since they are more profitable, the younger the better. The six-year-olds are put to work selling flowers in the bar districts of China's big cities.

On a trip two years ago, he found Liu Mei, the mother of a nine-year-old girl named Chen Ying. There was also her 10-year-old brother, Gai, a soft-spoken boy whom his mother could not afford to send to school. As he does every trip, the Flower Man offered $200 to $300 a child, an advance payment that was enough for Liu to pay off some of her debts to the town officials. She took the money and hasn't seen here children since.

You can find the sold children of Dimuchong Village (Mandarin for the Village near the Woods) any night on Beijing's streets. They work, along with competitors from other Hunan villages, under the chemical glow of the neon light shed by bars with names such as Orgasm and the Boys and Girls Club. They are part of the strip of mostly sleazy establishments on Jiu Ba Jie, simply known as Beijing's Bar Street, catering to the beneficiaries of China's economic boom.

With the disarming smiles of children, they sell their bunches of withered red roses carefully wrapped in cellophane to strangers for $2 apiece.

To tourists such as Joe Balladaci, a pensioner from Florida, they seem like adorable hustlers trying to make a few bucks after school, much like the paperboys of a bygone era back home. "She's a cutie pie," he says, patting the head of Chen Ying. Now 12, she is rake-thin in rumpled clothes with a heart-melting smile. "This kid is going places."

A Chinese businessman, his hand steering the elbow of a Chinese woman dressed in knock-off Chanel, sees Chen from a more Darwinian perspective. "These kids should be happy. They are making a living and they don't have their Beijing hukou [residence permit]," he says, moving down the street to the next bar.

Chen, who has been working the street since the Flower Man bought her two years ago, dismisses the Chinese man, figuring there is no tip there. Instead, she holds the American's hand and says in broken English that her name is Rose, given to her by an American couple a few months ago.

"Xiexie, xiexie,thank you, thank you," she chirps in delight as the silver-haired American proffers a 50-renminbi note, about $10 Canadian, for a single rosebud.

But as soon as he disappears into a nearby bar, Rose's flower-girl smile disappears. Her eyes harden and she looks older as she scopes the street for her next customer.

The Flower Man has set a stiff quota tonight: 50 roses need to be sold, and Rose doesn't want a beating. "The boss makes me work every night, from sunset to sunrise," she says, standing outside the Skyline Bar, were a group of prostitutes are whispering "lady bar, lady bar", the hookers come-on, to male passersby.

Her brother, Gai, who hovers with his tattered roses in a nearby stairwell, is worse off. He hasn't sold a flower in 4 hours.

"If I don't sell all my flowers, the Flower Man will be very angry," Rose says. "I'm tired. But I never cry," she says, clenching her jaw. Still, when she is asked where her mother is, her eyes suddenly well up and she bites her lip like the little girl she is: "Mother is home in the village, far away. I wish I could see her, but we have no money and the Flower Man won't let me go home yet until I make more."

This week, as they do every May Day, China's leaders will unfurl their red flags and banners to celebrate the importance of the country's 1.26 billion workers. There will be the usual propaganda shows, with perfect children in Red Pioneer scarves, rosy cheeks to match, reciting patriotic Party slogans about the People's Paradise.

As a fifth of humanity prepares to take a week off to celebrate China's Communist Revolution, it is hard not to remember that child slavery was not supposed to be part of the the 21st century's largest socialist experiment.

Before the 1949 peasant uprising that brought Mao to power, China's cities were full of rickshaw boys and child servants. Infants were sold to syndicates that then in turn sold their labour to the highest bidder; youngsters worked in the factories and dockyards, or simply scoured the streets, begging money off the rich.

Chairman Mao's revolution was supposed to end these indignities, to narrow the gap between rich and poor and ensure that even a peasant's child would get a basic education and a respectable trade to carry them through life. And for a while it did.

But the Great Helmsman's social contract is mostly void in today's China. There are now more than one million children working -- some forced into slavery by gangs -- in China's cities and towns. "Child labour is on the rise in China again," says Hou Wenzhou, a social worker who has taken it upon herself to mount a one-woman campaign to improve the lives of disposed children. "Nobody knows how many children are being forced into labour. But there are, by my estimate, at least one million."

A tall, patrician-looking woman who is fiercely proud of China's attempts to stand up for itself on the international scene and build a modern economy, Hou is saddened by what is happening to China's most helpless citizens. And ordinary Chinese citizens in prosperous places such as Beijing are too absorbed by the chance to cash in on the economic boom that is transforming the nation to see the tragedies on their doorstep.

The lucky children get to sell flowers, or perhaps fill up buckets with dirty water to wash the luxury sedans that China's nouveaux riches and Communist officials park outside bars and restaurants.

The less lucky are put to work in China's booming manufacturing industry, cheap labour hidden away in obscure factories that make cheap toys for kids halfway around the world.

Now and then, they make the headlines. Nine months ago, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post discovered that a factory in the city of Shenzhen was making plastic toys for McDonald's. After the disclosure, the burger superpower quickly cancelled its orders with the factory, which was employing children as young as 14 for 1.5 renminbi (about 30 cents) an hour, 16 hours a day to make Snoopy toys for Happy Meals. But similar factories stay open.

And there are crueler fates for China's children. Disabled, blind, and crippled babies often end up in the hands of criminal gangs, which are kidnapping untold numbers of Chinese children.

In a rare disclosure, the China Daily reported last year that public security officials recently rescued 13,000 youngsters who were abducted from their homes. That's the tip of the iceberg, say most observers, who wish to remain anonymous.

In many of the cases, the children rescued from their abductors had been sexually abused. They had also been put to work begging on the busy streets of Beijing and other cities, where the Communist's new money classes are likely to be found.

In the worst cases, as has been reported in China's own state-run newspapers, some children are mutilated by gangs because the worse the child's disability, the greater the contribution from passersby.

More fortunate are the healthy babies, mostly boys, who are sold to China's childless couples for thousands of dollars; it's a rare chance for a peasant's child to move up in China's deeply ingrained class system. Those who aren't sold are kidnapped, a problem so widespread the government has set up a DNA database to help parents of lost children. Since they usually can't recognize their babies after so long an absence, they need the DNA to prove they are their children.

No one is ever going to do a DNA test on Rose or her brother, Gai, though. They are part of the impoverished army of the vulnerable, unseen and wanted.

"Go, go to another place!" The order is barked from a People's Liberation Army soldier, patrolling Worker's Road, not far from Beijing's Bar Street. It is 2 a.m. and he has discovered an old man with an amputated leg, who has been smearing mud and dirt on the faces of two children, both of whom appear to be under 10 and are literally falling asleep on their feet.

Seeing the soldier, the trio shuffle off to the next block without a word. Six hours later, the children are still on the street, though now they are sprawled under a bush, asleep. The old man is gone. In his stead is a ruddy-faced woman with a crutch, who is happy to disown the children.

"These are not my children, I do not know who they belong to," she says in one of the fast, countrified accents of China's countryside. "We are from Sichuan. We work together to buy food."

Farther up the sidewalk is the saddest sight on Worker's Road, just a few blocks away from the Worker's Park where May Day celebrations will be held this week and where China's regime hopes to hold part of the Olympic Games. It is a semi-comatose, crippled blind boy, who lies on the sidewalk, legs sprawled out behind him. The irises of his eyes are bluish cataracts. He holds out his hand, hearing the sound of someone approaching.

For the past three years, this boy has shown up on Worker Stadium Road, deposited near the foreigners' compounds by adults who usually stand 50 metres away, concealed by the shadows of the poplars and weeping willows that line the street.

Every so often, someone leaving Starbucks or the IBM tower -- both have been built since the blind boy first took up residence -- deposit a few renminbi into his cup. As soon as they leave, the adults in the bushes take the money and retreat. Soldiers and passing police patrols do nothing.

"The city people don't seem to care about these children," Hou says as she escorts a visitor down Bar Street, where she is a beloved and familiar figure. The child flower sellers, Rose among them, come running up to her. Hou gives out hugs, a rare commodity here, and peppers them with gentle questions about their treatment at the hands of the Flower Man. "Are you eating well?" she asks. "When is the last time you saw your mother?"

Rose simply wraps her arms more tightly around Hou's leg. "I haven't seen my mother for a long time. But I'm happy to see you."

A thunderstorm is glowering above Dimuchong Village. Mao was born just a few hundred kilometres away; it's where he learned to loathe the landlord class. It is also the heartland where the Communists drew on the loyalty of China's peasantry, now 800 million strong, to fuel the stunning revolution against the moneyed classes.

But on the steep road to this village, there is disillusionment. The Communist Party's official notice board in the country centre may claim that 100 per cent of children are in school and that harvests are up and unemployment down, but it is a chalkboard fiction to the people of Dimuchong.

"Look," the schoolmaster says, interrupting a game of cards in the village leader's house. Under the bare light bulb, a luxury here, he opens up his fraying leather wallet. He takes out a handful of paper slips, IOUs from the students once in his charge. "I gave them all money out of my own savings to pay for their books and pencils. They will never pay me back, but what can I do but give them the money? The government will pay for nothing now."

Have they heard of the little girl known in Beijing as Rose? Oh, yes, says the village chief, who prefers not be named. Her mother "lives at the top of the village, we will find her," he says.

A half-hour later, Rose's mother, Liu Mei, is standing on the threshold of the village chief's door. She says nothing, but leads her foreign guest down the rutted road between the hills and rice fields. At the only store, a mud shed selling soap and rice and chrysanthemum tea, she buys a bag of sunflower seeds. Without a word, she walks a kilometre-long narrow footpath to her empty house, a red-stoned building on the edge of the bamboo forest.

She puts chairs near her front door, just inside to avoid the rain that has begun to fall. Then she opens up her bag of sunflower seeds and begins to peel a few, her fingers shaking with emotion. This is the first foreigner she has ever met. She begins to cry.

"I love my children," she says, tears flowing down her sun-wrinkled cheeks. But when the Flower Man came to the village two years ago, offering money to take 10-year-old Rose away to work in Beijing's streets, she had no choice. Selling off her duaghter was the only way to save the rice fields and the crumbling house they call home.

Like other peasants who have lived on the site of Dimuchong Village for thousands of years, she and her husband farm every square inch of their small piece of land. They raise just enough rice to scrape out a meagre existence, with a little profit left over to send her daughter and older son to school.

But one day her husband stumbled in the field, hurting his leg. The wound festered, and soon he found it impossible to wade through the calf-deep mud and water to tend the family rice fields.

It was a calamity. With no other way to make money, Rose left Dimuchong and joined the ranks of the 125 million migrants from the countryside who float around China looking for work in the cities. He promised to send back word and, more important, money to get them out of debt.

More than a year passed without a letter or phone call home from her husband. Today, Liu says she has no idea what happened; he may have abandoned her, or been killed on one of China's notoriously risky construction sites. Either way, the money ran out just as the Flower Man made his visit.

"We had no money to send our girl to school," she says. "The Flower Man said that my girl would make 2,500 renminbi a year [about $500]. That is a lot of money. But so far she hasn't come home or given me any money."

Then things got worse. Her 12-year-old son, Gai, was forced to leave school when the tuition money ran dry. He returned to the family house at the top of the hill, so left out of China's economic boom that there isn't even any electricity. "He looked at our house and cried," Liu says, sitting on a stool on the home's dirt floor, gazing up at the holes in her roof.

Listening to the sound of raindrops falling inside her darkened house, she says her boy was simply ashamed of her. "He said, 'We are so poor, we don't even have electricity. I cannot live here.' So he went to Beijing to sell flowers, too, to bring us electricity.

"I worry about them all the time,' she says softly as thunder clapped on the horizon. "I wonder, are my children safe? Are they being beaten? What is their life like? If you see them, please, tell them to call home."

A few days later, Gai is on Bar Street, a few roses in his hand and a sad look on his face. He hasn't been selling as well as his sister. People like to buy from a girl more than a boy.

He says to say hello to his mother; he thinks of her every day. "I don't make much money," he says. "I will never be able to go back home and go back to school."

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