Centuries of Contempt : Disabled Are People Too, China Rules

Times Staff Writer

The article in the People’s Daily was startling for its candor.

“We have children who chase crippled people down the street and lob stones at them, or gather together to jeer and hoot. Not only children, but even some (Communist) party cadres sneer at handicapped people,” the article said. “As far as handicapped people are concerned, China is relatively backward.”

The author of that story has good reason to know about the plight of China’s handicapped: He is Deng Pufang, 43, and he has been confined to a wheelchair for nearly 20 years.

During the violent summer of 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards pushed Deng, the eldest son of Deng Xiaoping, out a fourth-floor window at Beijing University. The fall left young Deng, then a physics student, paralyzed from the waist down.


With a Silver Lining

His tragedy, however, has had a silver lining for the disabled people of China.

With his father now in power as China’s top leader, Deng Pufang over the last three years has emerged as this nation’s leading advocate of handicapped rights.

As director in chief of the China Welfare Fund for the Handicapped, young Deng has helped bring unprecedented attention to the problems of disabled people in a nation that for centuries tended to treat them with contempt and is only now beginning to show sensitivity to their needs.

Partly through Deng Pufang’s prodding, China has revised university admission policies that barred disabled students, expanded training and rehabilitation services and enacted preferential tax treatment for small businesses owned by the handicapped.

1.5 Million Surveyed

This spring, the country conducted a massive survey of 1.5 million people to gather statistics on disabled people and promote efforts on their behalf.

One of the first steps taken by the welfare fund was similar to efforts by American ethnic or social minorities faced with discrimination: It has tried to popularize a new name for the handicapped.

The traditional Chinese word for “handicapped person” is canfei , which literally means a person who is “incomplete and useless.” Another term, feiren , is often used to mean either “handicapped person” or “a good-for-nothing.”

The welfare fund adopted the more respectful but previously little-used term canji ren, “incomplete illness person.” Over the past three years, this phrasing has become standard for publications throughout the country, according to Liu Gangqi, a welfare fund spokesman.


The welfare fund--which is supported by domestic and foreign contributions and its own profit-making business arm--recently cooperated with China Central Television to air the first program in a series of documentaries intended to introduce the problems of disabled people to the general public.

“We want to emphasize understanding of the handicapped,” Deng told the television audience. “Understanding is a bridge. . . . I think that people whom it is especially difficult to understand especially yearn to be understood.”

Not Weak, but Strong

One of those who will be introduced on a future program is Liu Jingsheng, 35, a paper factory worker who lost both arms in an accident nine years ago. He has learned to do superb calligraphy--a highly respected art form in China--with a brush harnessed to the stump of his right arm.

“Strong ones,” Liu wrote in bold black strokes for a television crew filming him early this month at the Beijing Assn. for the Handicapped. It is a favorite phrase of Deng Pufang’s.

“Handicapped people no longer think of themselves as weak ones, but as strong ones,” Deng declared on television. “Every handicapped person wants to show his or her talents and skills and have opportunities to contribute to both the country and the people.”

An important battlefield in the struggle for equal rights has been university admissions.

Before 1984, disabled people were barred from college by strict physical exams. Such discrimination was long accepted as natural. In a 1982 article about a young woman left crippled by polio, the China Daily casually reported that she “wanted to go to college” but “could not since so many healthy graduates (of high schools) did not have a chance.”

This policy was revised three years ago. Now about 2,000 handicapped people attend college, according to Liu Gangqi, the welfare fund official. China has 1.9 million college students.

Education officials remain split on the issue.

“Many schools are still reluctant to enroll handicapped students,” Zhan Shenggen, deputy director of the Beijing Admission Office for Institutions of Higher Education, told the China Daily last year. “We have to do a lot of persuasion. Very often, school presidents are called to give a final ‘yes.’ ”

Supporters of greater efforts on behalf of the disabled expect the recent national survey to lay the groundwork for more action.

“Our purpose is to raise the issue, examine the causes of problems and encourage the government to solve these problems,” said Li Zheng, a Ministry of Civil Affairs official who is in charge of the survey.

The survey was conducted by randomly examining households at each of 3,440 locations, Li said. It gathered information on medical care, rehabilitation, education, employment, marriage, family life and social activities of the handicapped, but analysis of the data has just begun.

Estimates Vary Widely

Estimates of the number of handicapped people in China vary widely. Li said the figure must be somewhere between 20 million, the lowest figure used by the Chinese press, and 100 million, an estimate made by the United Nations.

Since the end of the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution in 1976, Li said, two basic forces have created better conditions for the disabled: economic development and the country’s opening to the outside world.

China has begun to study “quite a few advanced Western things,” including ways to eliminate unnecessary obstacles the handicapped face, he said.

Since the beginning of 1986, four main streets in Beijing, including the city’s most famous shopping street, Wangfujing, have been refurbished with audible crosswalk signals, slanting sidewalks at intersections and ramps leading into major stores and theaters.

“Wangfujing is the starting point, and it will be followed by other cities and other parts of Beijing city,” Li said.

For those affected by the improvements, every little bit helps.

Yan Dekui, a 67-year-old retired worker with a bad hip, knew all about the changes along Wangfujing when approached by a reporter who saw him riding down a nearby street in a hand-driven three-wheel cycle.

“I can go into the department store,” Yan said with a cheerful grin. “I can go into the New China Bookstore, too. “

While many more facilities serving the disabled are needed, progress is being made in a variety of fields.

China now has more than 400 schools for the blind and deaf, an increase of about 30% during the past six years, Liu Gangqi said. Neighborhood rehabilitation services are being expanded with the help of the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

During a visit to China in late June, former President Jimmy Carter signed a letter of intent for Global 2000 Inc., a private organization he founded, to support education of handicapped children and help provide artificial limbs for amputees.

The city of Beijing began providing education for the mentally handicapped in 1981 and now has 1,100 students enrolled at four special schools and in 90 special classes at ordinary schools, according to a recent report by the official New China News Agency.

People who are mentally disabled face an especially severe tradition of discrimination.

“In the past, people would think that if there is a mental patient in the family, the ancestors of the patient did something immoral and it was a punishment, “ said Chen Xueshi, president of the Chinese Assn. for Mental Health and a professor of psychiatry at Capital Medical College in Beijing. “This concept still exists in the minds of some people in the countryside.”

The New China News Agency reported from Hangzhou this month that in recent years the city has established 34 small mental care centers. According to the report, these centers can house 600 out of the 12,000 people in the city who suffer mental handicaps caused by injuries, developmental disabilities or severe mental illness.

The report cited 30-year-old Fu Linjuan as someone whose “life has improved considerably.”

“She used to be such a troublemaker,” her parents were quoted as saying. “We had to tie her up and leave her at home for 20 years until 1982, when she was accepted by a mental care center.”

Blind Since Age 13

For handicapped people who are able to work, the key institutions offering employment are 14,000 social welfare factories across the country that employ slightly more than half a million people, about 35% of them handicapped, according to Liu Gangqi of the welfare fund.

Zhang Yongsheng, 49, who lost his eyesight at age 13, has worked at a welfare enterprise ever since leaving his native village in 1960 to seek work in Beijing.

“It was easy,” he said. “I heard there was this factory that takes blind people, and they took me right away.”

Zhang’s factory used to make watch parts, but two years ago, in a move to increase profitability, it and an adjacent welfare enterprise were retooled for cosmetics. His job is to assemble boxes for packaging the products. Now called the China Beijing Tri-Dewdrop Factory, the company has heavily advertised its “Dabao” brand of cosmetics and skin care products.

“People won’t buy things just because you put on a tag that says, ‘This was made by handicapped people,’ ” explained Zeng Li, the factory’s vice director. “We must compete and make products that people want.”

Tax Break for Businesses

Welfare enterprises whose work force is more than 35% handicapped pay reduced taxes, while those employing a majority of handicapped workers pay no taxes at all, Zeng said. Of about 1,500 workers in her factory, 51.4% are handicapped, she said.

Regular factories also employ some disabled people, and in recent years some have gone into business for themselves.

Wang Yansheng, 35, crippled by polio since the age of 4, worked for nine years at a radio factory before quitting his job in 1984 to open a cold-drink stand in front of his home on a busy Beijing street.

He knew his home was well-located for such an enterprise, Wang said, and when he saw other workers quitting their jobs to set up small businesses, he thought to himself, “I’m just as good.”

Wang said with pride that his monthly income now exceeds 400 yuan, about $110. A typical factory worker makes about 110 yuan a month.

Wang has bigger dreams for the future. A state-owned bank has expressed interest in redeveloping the plot of land his home stands on, and while it would use part of the new building for a branch, it also would provide his family with living and commercial space.

Wang said he plans to go into partnership with other handicapped people to open a clothing store. “The clerks will all be in wheelchairs,” he said.

China is not rich enough to solve all the problems of the disabled immediately, said Liu Gangqi, the welfare fund spokesman. But people are working, starting in the larger cities, to “step by step take care of the needs of the handicapped,” he said.