Pick a pocket or two

‘Big-Hearted Mama’ nabbed by police in orphan case


Li aka ‘Big-Hearted Mama’

In Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, Fagin takes in street urchins only to exploit them as pickpockets. In a scandal involving an orphanage in Hebei province, the founder Li Lijuan has been accused of something similar.

After years of accolades for her selfless philanthropy, Li was arrested on May 5 and charged with “gang-related extortion”.

She is alleged to have used the children in her care to obstruct construction projects and hamper businesses till “compensation” or “donations” were made.

In one case she extracted Rmb170,000 ($26,651) from a hotel and in another she sent her children to obstruct the laying of an optical fibre network so that the company would pay her money. “In construction projects children with disabilities were instructed to sit at the edge of the foundation pit, jump down into the pit, and wriggle under the construction vehicles,” Tencent News said. Li is also accused of using the 71 children in her care to extract government funds – money she then spent on property and high-end cars. Tencent News quoted the local police as saying she withheld food from the children if they didn’t do as she wanted.

An article on the local Wu’an government’s website said Li’s privately-owned Love Village orphanage had become an “independent kingdom” and that she had resisted blood testing on the children to check if they were being trafficked.

The orphanage has now been closed down and the children have been dispersed across government-run facilities.

There are some 500,000 orphans in China according to a 2016 UNICEF survey, but only 89,000 were in institutional care.

Generally speaking children are not recognised as orphans if they still have locatable relatives. Despite laws that allow parents to give up children for adoption it’s difficult to do in practical terms. This leads to the phenomenon of unwanted babies being left in outside orphanages, or, as in one case in Fujian last year, a baby girl being sent to a children’s home via an express courier.

The Love Village scandal also highlights a wider problem around the charity sector in China: as it explodes in size it is unfortunately also attracting fraudsters.

Last week The China Charities Federation, one of the country’s biggest philanthropic organisations, announced it received Rmb21.8 billion in cash and goods in 2017. Charitable giving has been transformed by the arrival of online payment apps. But technology has also made it easier to make fraudulent appeals or grab good publicity by appearing to carry out acts of charity.

Li won multiple awards including the Touching Hebei government award in 2006 and her story of millionaire mine owner turned dedicated “mother” to orphans fuelled feel-good pieces across the media. Li luxuriated in her nickname the ‘Big-Hearted Mama’.

In another case a father from Guangzhou was accused of defrauding the public after he used social media to raise Rmb2 million for his sick daughter.

Netizens then discovered that the same man owned multiple apartments and that much of his child’s leukaemia treatment was already covered by insurance.

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