Several government officials have been removed from their positions following the discovery of the bodies of five young boys inside a rubbish dumpster in Bijie, Guizhou Province.
The boys, homeless street children aged between 9-13, were found dead on Friday morning. Early reports suggest that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning after they lit a fire inside the dumpster where they were sheltering from the cold, wet winter weather.
According to Offbeat China, the boys were all related to one and other. According to family members, they were frequent school dropouts and often disappeared for days. Family members last saw the boys alive on November 5th.
One of the boys’ fathers told China Daily that both parents and teachers had gone out in search of them in the past few weeks. Nevertheless, two school headmasters, as well as six other government officials, have been removed from their positions pending an investigation.
The deaths of these children, and the accompanying uproar, will hopefully spark an evaluation of protections in place for homeless and runaway children. Residents in the area of Bijie where the bodies were found told local media that they’d previously seen the boys living in a tent in a nearby construction site, others said they’d seen the boys scavenging for food in a street market. Despite these clear, in retrospect, signs that the boys were living on the streets, no-one raised the alarm. The district police headquarters was a mere 100m away from the bin where the boys’ bodies were found.
Schools in rural China are plagued by systemic understaffing and low funding. Teachers are typically poorly paid and overworked, unable to act as truancy officers on top of their other responsibilities. As few as 1.3% of poor rural students progress beyond high school, according to a report (pdf) by the Rural Education Action Project. Poor rural parents often don’t see much value in education beyond the fact that schools provide free food and clothing, this begets a cruel and often inescapable cycle of low levels of education and poverty. While the Chinese government likes to bandy around statistics showing the number of people that have been raised out of poverty over the last decades, vast inequality still remains, with many rural areas little better off than they were 20 years ago.
Update #1: Xinhua has published a long editorial on the boys’ death “Street children’s deaths a wound in society”.
Though parents and caregivers play an irreplaceable role in providing for their children, the children’s abnormal deaths reveal serious shortcomings in the world’s second-largest economy.
“Further legislation will encourage more private investors to give a helping hand”, said Hu Yanping, a private business owner in Changchun, capital of northeast China’s Jilin Province.
Hu founded China’s first nursing home for mentally disabled people in 2002 and has sheltered dozens, mostly street children.
“The private sector has a larger role to play in helping needy children,” she said. “But this is a tough job that cannot be done by any single person or organization. We need to work more closely with government agencies and better coordination is necessary to improve efficiency — so when an issue concerning street children comes up, we know which government department to report to.”
Official figures indicate China has over 150,000 street children, about half of whom have fled home over family disputes.
“Concerted efforts from the government, non-governmental bodies, schools and families are called for to solve the issue,” said Wei Zusong, a sociologist who has followed the issue in Guangzhou.