ON THE day China unveiled its new leadership in Beijing with promises of a better life for all, five runaway boys seeking shelter and warmth died in a rubbish container in the south.
The boys were all brothers or cousins aged nine to 13. Surnamed Tao, they were the sons of three brothers – two of whom are migrant workers with jobs far from home – and most of them lived largely unsupervised in the care of their blind grandmother.
They had been missing for more than a week when they lit a fire to stay warm on a cold, damp night on 15 November in the city of Bijie and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Details of the tragedy emerged this week, amid the country’s latest soul-searching about social responsibility. It renewed concern over rural children who are often left with grandparents while parents seek work in thriving coastal cities, and the failure of the country’s social services to adequately care for them.
“Though you departed from us in a rubbish bin, you are not rubbish,” children’s book author Zheng Yuanjie wrote on his blog, adding that the fault lies with “adults who failed their responsibilities”.
Questions have been raised about how the children – found about 15 miles from their home village of Caqiangyan – could have gone missing for ten days without more of an effort being launched to find them. Six officials, including two headteachers, were sacked on Tuesday.
“We have failed in our management work,” said Tang Guangxing, a spokesman for Bijie city, where the boys’ bodies were found last Friday. “Our work was not attentive enough.”
State media outlets, unusually giving the deaths broad coverage, have joined in the hand-wringing.
“This is a shame that cannot be washed away by a civilised society,” the Beijing Youth Daily wrote in an editorial this week.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the boys had poor marks at school and had dropped out. It blamed China’s education system for putting too much stress on academic excellence at the expense of caring for less successful students.
Many critics in China have fretted over decaying public morality as the country’s economy rapidly grows and its people enjoy unprecedented wealth.
The latest incident has focused concern on the plight of families in impoverished rural areas. An estimated 58 million children lack sufficient supervision or stay in the care of grandparents when their parents seek work in China’s booming cities.
The boys – Zhongjin, Zhonghong, Zhonglin, Chong and Bo – were found in a 5ft by 4ft rubbish container in Bijie after a night of drizzling rain when temperatures were about 4C.
The boys died hours after Xi Jinping gave his first speech as China’s new leader in Beijing. Xi underlined the Communist Party’s mission to improve the country’s education, employment, social security, housing and healthcare.
“Our people have an ardent love for life,” Xi said in the speech. “They want their children to have sound growth, have good jobs and lead a more enjoyable life.”