Stars in the sky
How a British social worker came to be known as the father of a million Chinese children
Robert Glover had long felt a calling to China. Working as a social worker in Norfolk, then Guernsey, he imagined becoming an evangelist with the Chinese underground Church, but saw no openings. One came, however, from an unexpected direction.
One day in 1996, having a pint with his friend James, who had made a lot of money when his Devonshire cidery was bought out by a major cider company, Robert mentioned his dream. James said: ‘Let’s go. I’ll pay, you pray.’
The pair organised a tour of Chinese cities, making and meeting contacts. Robert was moved by the crisis engulfing Chinese orphanages. Since 1979, China’s one-child policy had led parents – needing a son to provide for them in later life – to abandon girl babies and disabled boys. Orphanages were struggling to cope with the numbers, and revelations about their conditions had proved an international embarrassment for China.
A random conversation in the crowd at an athletics event led to Robert being invited to a banquet in Shanghai where authorities conferred with western NGOs about the orphanages. ‘The other foreigners were wagging their fingers,’ says Robert, ‘telling the government off. I just enjoyed the lovely food.’ He chatted, laughed and kept appreciating the feast. Only later did he discover that he was observing the Chinese custom of guangxi, where business is done through a subtle process of hospitality and friendship, and where not losing face is crucial. Robert alone was invited back to a more lavish banquet, where his hosts asked him about how state care for children worked in Britain. This was something he knew about.
As Robert shared his stories, he learned two important things. One was that Chinese culture seemed to have very little concept of foster care. ‘There wasn’t even a word for family-based care,’ he says. The other was that the one-child policy had left large numbers of Chinese parents eager for more. A man, who Robert later discovered to be China’s Vice Minister of Civil Affairs, asked him: ‘Will you come back and help us?’…
Stephen Tomkins is Editor of Reform. Robert’s book, As Many As the Stars, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in October 2020.
This is an extract from an article published in the December 2020 / January 2021 edition of Reform