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