Chinese primary school student Guo Yuxin had never been to Australia, but she knew a lot about the country: its population, major cities and unique animals, such as koalas and wombats.
Guo, 12, attends the Labagoumen central primary school in Huairou district in Beijing. The school, about 144 kilometers from Tian'anmen Square, is dubbed as the northernmost primary school in the Chinese capital.
Her knowledge about Australia comes from a book given to her by the Australia China Friendship Society, Australian Capital Territory Branch, which has been providing financial support to the girl for two years.
Lanterns lit the way
Located in the mountains, Labagoumen Manchurian village, where the school is situated, was one of the most impoverished areas in Beijing two decades ago. According to Guo Luping, a teacher from the primary school, annual income of an ordinary household used to only be about 10,000 yuan (about $1,531).
"Some students even needed financial support from the school and teachers to buy stationary," says Liu Jiulei, the school's principal.
"The buildings were old. When winter came, we burned coal and the entire campus was filled with black smoke," he says. "There were no toilets inside the dormitory building. Our students had to leave the building on freezing winter nights, run across the playground and use the public toilet."
Things began to change about 19 years ago, when a group of Australian visitors came to the school.
Sitting in her home in the Australian capital of Canberra about 9,000 km away, Carol Keil, president of the Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch thumbs through her diary to talk about how they managed to start the project in Labagoumen.
"In the first year we supported 21 students," says Keil. "Our idea was to find a child early on, when they're about six, and then take them through to high school. The total number of students that we have helped over the years is approximately 250, and we have raised $27,248 for them students."
They also donated English books and brought souvenirs for the Chinese children.
It is not easy for such a small organization.
"We do it mostly by selling paper lanterns at the Lantern Festival," Keil says.
They held a lantern making workshop, which was where most of the funds came from. Occasionally they receive donations from members.
According to Liu, the society is the only international and longest serving sponsor of.
More than just financial support
One of the recipients of the financial support was 16-year-old Lang Jinyuan. Her father died in 2012 and the entire family relied on the meager income of her farming mother.
That year she received 400 yuan from the Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch, which covered the cost of books and stationary for half a year.
The financial support continued for six years.
"It helped me a lot in the most difficult time," she says. "Apart from buying books and stationary, I managed to save a bit to help my family."
Now the teenager is in the Huairou No 1 Middle School, which is the best middle school in the district.
"I can't express how grateful I am," she said. "If possible I would like to go to Australia one day to thank them. I would also like to help other children when I grow up."
In 2019, the funding for each student had risen to 1,000 yuan for the year.
The central government and various levels of local governments across China have been investing heavily in poverty alleviation over the years.
More funding has brought forth tremendous changes to the school: its buildings were renovated, a new gym was built and the heating system was upgraded. "Now each dormitory is installed with a separate toilet," says Guo.
Keil, who last visited China in 2019, personally witnessed the changes.
"When my predecessor first went there, the playground was dirt ...and then when I went, it had been turfed over," she says. "The buildings looked very well-kept, and the canteen was really nice.
"The kids seemed quite happy," she says.
Looking back, Keil says the effort was rewarding.
"It's always good for children to be able to stay at school," she says.
"If they can stay at school, that means they have opportunities to get a good job and possibly go to university."
To her, changes at the school and of its students has epitomized China's development in general. "The changes in the country have been enormous," she says.
Keil first visited China in 1982, when there were few private cars on the streets. "Old trucks were still being used (for transportation), and in the countryside there were so many walking tractors. Clothing was very dull," she recalls.
"Every time I go back, I just think 'my goodness', it's being developed all the time."
Through the work of Australia China Friendship Society ACT Branch, Chinese people can also learn about Australia, according to Yang Zhi, minister-counselor for culture at the Chinese embassy in Australia.
"When relations between China and Australia are strained, there are still friendly people in Australia like Carol Keil and other members in the society, who would like to see a better relationship between the two countries," he says.
"Exchanges with the Australian visitors broadened the horizon of our children in the mountains," says Liu. "They were not only able to continue their studies with the funding, but also felt the kindness coming from across the ocean. It is my wish that our friendship can be carried on by the children."