PLANNING FOR TOMORROW: A doctor at Peking University No.1 Hospital explains the physical examination results of an orphan, on May 15, 2010. The child has been treated for severe cerebral disease in the hospital under the Tomorrow Plan, a government plan paying for the operation and rehabilitation cost of disabled orphans in welfare institutions (XINHUA)
On January 13, Zhang Xinyu, a resident in Banan District, southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, received the living allowance for his orphaned grandson from the government. Zhang lost his son and daughter-in-law to a traffic accident last September. Since then he has taken care of their 2-year old.
This was the first time living stipends were distributed to orphans not living in orphanages, said an official with Chongqing's Civil Affairs Bureau.
All children with Chongqing resident status under 18 years old, whose both parents are dead or missing, can now claim the stipends, said a local regulation; so can orphans at or above 18 who are still studying in middle schools or secondary vocational schools. Orphans in welfare institutions can get 700 yuan ($106) per month and other eligible children can get 600 yuan ($91) per month.
The stipends for 2010 would be delivered to all targeted recipients by the end of this January, the Chongqing official said.
The living stipends in Chongqing were given out pursuant to a circular on stepping up assistance to orphans issued by the State Council, China's cabinet, last November.
The circular mandates provincial-level governments to set the minimum living standard for orphans no lower than the local average living standard, and to allocate special funding to provide living stipends for orphans, which would be supplemented with funding from the Central Government.
In 2010, the Central Government earmarked 2.5 billion yuan ($379 million) from the treasury to assist orphans. In the future, the government will continue to provide supplementary funding according to the number and basic living needs of orphans, the circular says.
The circular also spells out government assistance to orphans in areas such as education, health, employment and housing.
In November 2010, the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) and the Ministry of Finance jointly issued a notice on specifying on the standard of the funding from the Central Government.
The notice also said central and local governments will adjust the amount of stipend according to needs.
"The moves mark the beginning of a new era for China's child welfare system," said Wang Zhenyao, Dean of the Beijing Normal University One Foundation Philanthropy Research Center and a former MCA official.
Latest statistics from the MCA show China has a total of 712,000 orphans, up 24 percent from the number reported in 2005. About 86.3 percent of them live in rural areas.
"Bereft of parental care, orphans are the most vulnerable group in the society. They are subject to hunger, disease and crime," said Wang.
China's Marriage Law stipulates an orphan's grandparents and grown-up siblings are liable for raising the children if they are capable to do so.
Nearly 80 percent of orphans were raised by their relatives; most live with their grandparents who were in their 70s or 80s and some with their uncles or other relatives, said Li Liguo, Minister of Civil Affairs.
Only 69,000 of a total of 573,000 orphans lived in welfare institutions, according to the first national survey on orphans conducted by the MCA in 2005.
For a long time, government assistance to orphans was part of poverty relief efforts. The 2005 national survey revealed that about two thirds of orphans were covered by the government's social relief system to ensure the basic livelihood of urban and rural residents.
Orphans in the countryside mainly got government allowances under the "five-guarantees" program or government relief programs for residents in dire poverty. The "five-guarantees" program is a government-sponsored safety net providing food, housing, clothing, medical care and funeral expenses or education expenses for the aged, the infirmed, elderly widows and widowers and orphans who have no relatives to depend on.
In cities, some orphans were covered by subsistence allowances for low-income people.
Although about two thirds of orphans receive regular financial assistance from the government, in many places, this assistance covers only about 10 percent to 25 percent of their normal living expenses, the survey found.
Some of the families that orphans lived with were in hardship, Li said, and family burdens sometimes triggered clashes between family members. So, some orphans run away from home and became street children, while some even turn into criminals.
"In the past, Chinese families were extended and kinship ties were strong. But traditional family values are changing in the market economy. In rural areas, family ties are becoming looser. Orphans' relatives no longer think it is their responsibility to raise the orphans," said Shang Xiaoyuan, a professor at the School of Social Development and Public Policy of Beijing Normal University.