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    Greater China
     Dec 6, 2012

China's forgotten children
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Of all the tragic subplots to the epic tale of China's 30-years-and-counting breakneck economic growth - the wholesale environmental degradation, the toxic food and the rampant corruption, to name a few - perhaps the most disturbing is that of tens of millions of children who have been left behind in poorer regions by migrant workers chasing their dream of better jobs and higher wages in the booming cities of the country's eastern provinces.

While many of those workers find such jobs, too often their improved economic lot comes at a high cost to their families, as children are handed over to already overburdened relatives or simply abandoned to fend for themselves. Deplorably, the


country's outdated hukou, or household registration system, actually works to encourage this massive break-up of Chinese families.

Under this system, which was designed to keep peasant farmers from flocking to cities under the old command economy of communism, entitlements such as housing, healthcare, education and pensions are tied to a person's place of birth; leaving that place means sacrificing those benefits. So many of China's more than 230 million migrant workers now try to have it both ways, leaving their children at home while the grown-ups pursue their economic dreams in the city.

But sometimes those dreams turn into nightmares, as happened last month in the city of Bijie, in the southwestern province of Guizhou.

On a chilly November night that saw temperatures drop to six degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) in the city, five boys between the ages of 9 and 13, all members of the same extended family, apparently climbed into a garbage bin to find warmth. The next morning a trash collector found them dead in that same dumpster, having suffocated from the fumes of the charcoal they burned to keep warm.

The boys were the children of three brothers, two of whom are migrant workers in Shenzhen, the thriving metropolis bordering Hong Kong; the other, a poor Guizhou farmer, reportedly had little time for his own son let alone his four nephews.

Until they were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in the city dumpster, the boys had not been seen for three weeks by any member of their family or by their school teacher, but no relative or school official cared enough to go looking for them. They had fallen into an underworld of street children that UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) of China estimates to number 1.5 million but whose actual ranks are almost certainly much larger.

Officially, 58 million children (again the actual figure is probably considerably higher) have been "left behind" by migrant parents; given the government's inattention to their plight, it is impossible to know how many of those children are lost and forgotten like the five boys who died in Bijie.

During the same week of their deaths, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with due pomp and circumstance, unveiled its new leadership team at its 18th National Congress in Beijing. Xi Jinping was selected to succeed Hu Jintao as CCP general secretary and will also replace the latter as Chinese president in March, and Li Keqiang will take Wen Jiabao's place as premier.

Of course, many speeches were given promising to make China a fairer, better place for all its citizens, but none of them mentioned the boys or any of the other forgotten children of China. So the high-sounding rhetoric of the congress most likely fell on deaf ears in Bijie, a city of more than seven million people, as well as among netizens across the nation who logged in to express their shock and dismay that children could die in such despairing circumstances in their nation.

The overwhelming and continuing cyber outcry amounts to a national exercise in soul-searching about the values of contemporary Chinese society. A similar reaction was seen last year, when the hit-and-run death of two-year-old Yue Yue in the southern city of Foshan sparked a national dialogue on the Internet about the collective soul of 21st-century China.

Video footage showed that the toddler was struck by a van that failed to stop after hitting her. Seven minutes later, after a succession of passers-by ignored the bleeding girl now lying in the street, she was run over by a second vehicle.

Yue Yue died a week later in a Foshan hospital. Two drivers were arrested and charged, and a nation's conscience had been stricken by the callous disregard for human life displayed at the scene of the accident.

Now, once again, it is the death of children that has stirred much of the nation to reflect on the values of a society that, in pursuit of wealth, will leave its progeny behind to scavenge in the streets and on the perversity of a governmental system, hukou, that encourages family break-ups.

Of course, when a story about five neglected children dying in a trash bin goes viral on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, heads have to roll, and the predictable scapegoats have been trotted out in Bijie. So far, six officials have been dismissed - two principals at the school the boys were supposed to be attending and four government bureaucrats in charge of education and civil affairs in the district in which Bijie is located. In addition, two lesser functionaries in those departments have been suspended pending an investigation.

But we have seen all this before: a scandal breaks, scapegoats are found, the larger issue remains unaddressed and life goes on, business as usual, in China. Think toxic food, think corruption - and, yes, think specifically of disgraced former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, the biggest scapegoat of them all.

Bo may have been enriching himself and his family and grossly abusing his power during his tenure in Chongqing. In so doing, however, he was only following the unwritten rules of the party, not breaking them. But what does Bo's sensational case have to do with five street urchins who died of suffocation in a Bijie dumpster?

High and low, the system, both callous and corrupt, claims its victims. While few people are weeping for Bo, legions have taken to the Internet to mark the death of the boys. There is at least some, albeit poor, justice in that.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

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Home is best for China's migrant workers (Mar 3, '12)



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