Boys' deaths reopens wealth gap debate


The five runaway boys were all either brothers or cousins, all surnamed Tao and aged between nine and 13. They had huddled in a rubbish skip to seek shelter on a cold and wet night in the city of Bijie in south China, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning when they lit a fire to stay warm.

The boys’ fate bares the underbelly of China’s rapid economic expansion of recent years, which has taken millions off the poverty line but has also intensified the difference in incomes between rich and poor.

Zhongjin, Zhonghong, Zhonglin, Chong and Bo had been dead for five days when an 83- year-old woman gathering plastic bottles at the rubbish dump found them. They had suffocated in a 1.5m by 1.3m dumpster after a night of drizzling rain, when temperatures had fallen to about six degrees.

Four of the five were the sons of migrant workers working in the boom town of Shenzhen – two of the fathers worked as refuse collectors there – and nearly all of the boys lived in the care of their blind grandmother. They had been missing for 10 days when they perished.

One local woman said she had seen the boys on the day of their deaths, and they used to earn money by collecting and selling garbage.

“The last time I saw them was that afternoon around 5pm, they were playing football together and looked happy,” she told local media.

The children died on the same day, November 15th, as the government leadership made a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

There is growing public dissatisfaction with the gaping wealth gap in China between the rich in the cities and the rural poor who provide the migrant labour that built the New China. The Communist leadership has pledged to try and address the increasing inequalities in China.

The boys were found just 25km from their home village of Caqiangyan, where the average income per person a year is about 1,500 yuan (€187).

Bijie is a city in the mountainous northwest of the poor province of Guizhou. It is about 200km away from the provincial capital, Guiyang.

Local residents tell of seeing them begging outside a local school and using the proceeds to buy a bowl of noodles to share, but questions were being asked why they weren’t found earlier.

Authorities at their schools were also held responsible – six local officials, including two school principals, were sacked.

The runaways typify a generation known as the “left-behind” children who are brought up by their grandparents.

Their parents often both leave to work in the cities, where they are not entitled to education or healthcare for their children, as they work on the building sites and wait tables in the eateries on the eastern seaboard and Beijing.

The youngsters’ fate has touched a nerve and reopened the debate about a dearth of civic responsibility and public morals in China, reminiscent of the public anger last year when a toddler in Foshan in Guangdong province was run over by two vehicles and then ignored by at least 18 passersby.

“This is a shame that cannot be washed away by a civilised society,” the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper wrote in an editorial.

The Xinhua news agency, in a markedly strident piece on the deaths, said the tragedy was a wake-up call.

“Something needs to be done to improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers, so they can settle in the cities where they work and enjoy the same rights as their urban counterparts,” it said.

“This would enable them to have their children live with them. This should be where people point their fingers if they want to prevent such a tragedy happening again.”

The fate of the children was revealed online by a web commentator called Li Yuanlong, who posted four photos and some details related to their death in an article on the online forum kdnet.netat the weekend.

Li, a former journalist who lives in Bijie, posted that the children had been living in a temporary shelter with plastic cloth, bricks and plywood at a nearby demolition site.

The police subsequently detained him, his son told local media.