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In China's Rush to Riches, It Tries to Curb Child Labor

LI SHUHUI is among a growing corps of rural youngsters working under harsh conditions in urban China.

Paid less than $15 monthly, the raggedly dressed 14-year-old works as domestic help for two families and provides twice-daily massages to an elderly employer.

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She and a sister work to help support family in Shandong Province since their father died and their mother abandoned them. ''I don't mind the housework. But the most uncomfortable thing is giving massages to the old man,'' says the girl, who denies that she is sexually abused.

Under a new labor law effective Jan. 1, China has launched an initiative against the recruitment and employment of children under 16. Although youngsters have long been key laborers in the countryside, the hiring, recruitment, and even kidnapping of children to work small jobs, sell, beg, or be forced into prostitution in cities is on the rise, according to the official Chinese press.

''Employment of children cripples them mentally and physically damaging the hope and future of the nation,'' reports the official China Women's News.

China's rapid market-style economic changes have unhinged Communist social controls and set millions of rural Chinese in motion. Joining the flow in increasing numbers are youngsters displaced from their homes, blocked from attending school, and scrounging for work to support themselves and other family.

In 1994, a survey by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the United Nations Children's Fund estimated that 200,000 homeless children, ages 4 to 11, have been thrown out on the streets by farming disasters, poverty, broken families, and inadequate care. Chinese experts admit the study underestimates the scale of the problem here.

In 1990, another joint study said that only three-quarters of China's more-than-300 million children ages 6 to 14 attend school regularly.

IN recent months, the press has spotlighted the growing incidence of children exploited to cut labor costs and boost profits. Children as young as five years are at work on construction sites where they receive little food and sometimes no pay, or are employed in large numbers in textile factories and other sweatshops where they are sometimes locked in and not allowed to leave.

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In a December report, China Women's News said that 18 coal-mine owners in Hunan Province had been arrested for kidnapping children and forcing them to work without proper food and water in brutal conditions. More than 100 youngsters were rescued from the coal mines after being ''arbitrarily beaten, scolded, subjected to mistreatment'' and paid little, the paper reported.

The children worked 10-hour days shifting heavy loads, were fed only water and melons, and slept in tents crowded with 40 children each. They were saved after two escaped from mine supervisors distracted by adult workers.

Recruiting flower girls in villages and forcing them to sell on city streets has also been attacked by the Chinese press. Last month, the southern city of Guangzhou cracked down on gangs of young flower sellers, who are recruited and exploited by bosses, and sent about 25 girls, ages 4 to 12, home to Hunan Province.

But the Yang-cheng Evening News said the raids alerted bosses, who were believed to have taken their young vendors to other cities to avoid getting caught.

In Beijing, the gang bosses position the young girls outside stores and restaurants frequented by foreigners for up to seven hours daily but give them only 10 percent of their take and cut their pay if fewer than 10 flowers are sold, according to China News.

Their families often turn them over to a boss, whom the girls call ''uncle,'' because they are too small to do heavy farm work and their families have no money to support and educate them.

''These recent cases are their [the government's] way of saying that they're trying to address this problem,'' comments a Western diplomat, who says child labor is a part of the overall breakdown of law and order in the countryside. ''Comparatively speaking, it doesn't seem the problem is as bad in China as in some other countries.''

Because Li Shuhui is under 16, the Beijing domestic cannot apply for a temporary living pass in the Chinese capital and must live and work underground. But during the past year, she has managed to save about $60 to send to her grandmother and has begun tutoring herself from textbooks during her limited free time.

''If possible, I still want to go to school to study something,'' says the girl with a smile. ''Maybe later, I will need it.''

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