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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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DEADLY SHELTER

The discovery last week of five dead bodies of children in a garbage bin has shocked the country. A garbage collector discovered the bodies. Ironically, the fathers of two of the children work as garbage collectors in Shenzhen, far away from their home in Guizhou province.

The five boys, aged between nine and 13, had apparently crept into the bin to keep themselves warm on a rainy, cold night when the temperature dropped to six degrees. There was evidence of them having burnt coal or lit matchsticks to keep themselves warm. The autopsy revealed they had died of suffocation by carbon monoxide.

The five were cousins, sons of three brothers. One of the brothers lived in the same town, tending to his land. His son, like his cousins, had dropped out of school, and sometimes helped his father herd cattle. The father said he had forced his son to go back to school, but the boy kept dropping out, saying his grades were bad and that he didn’t feel like studying. The other four had been left in the care of an old grandmother who could barely look after herself. Their mothers, too, were working away from their hometown, Bijie, located high on the mountains.

One father had planned to force his sons back to school this time on his return to his hometown for the Chinese New Year. Two school principals and four government officials in charge of education and civic affairs were sacked for the deaths, while two officials were suspended. The principals were sacked for not getting the boys back to school.

Broken dream

The internet is full of anguished and caustic comments on the incident, mocking official communist party phrases used to describe China’s development, such as Xiaokang society and Scientific Development Concept. ‘Xiaokang society’, one in which most people are comfortably off, was first used by Deng Xiaoping when he opened up the economy, and was the goal set by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the just replaced heads of state, for 2020. ‘Scientific Development Concept’ is Hu’s theory, a means to address China’s social problems arising from a market economy. There are also mocking responses to the CCTV’s recent, Are you happy? series, wherein ordinary persons are asked whether they are happy.

Many netizens have compared the deaths to the Hans Christian Anderson story, “The Little Match Girl”. The story, about a poor girl selling matches on Christmas eve who dies of the cold after lighting matches to warm herself, used to be part of textbooks under Mao’s regime to illustrate the ills of a capitalist system. One post compares China’s low ranking in per capita income and investment in education and health care to its ranking in GDP — second in the world. Pictures of Bijie’s party secretary wearing expensive belts have been posted, while one netizen has asked this of government officials — “If you just drink one less bottle of Maotai (Chinese white wine), how many homeless children can you help?”

Last year, the government launched a ‘bring children home’ drive, targeting homeless kids. But these boys were not homeless. They preferred to hang out on the streets, from where the police had often picked them up and taken them home. This time, they had been missing from home for three weeks, and even built a makeshift home near a construction site from materials lying there. The official People’s Daily has asked: didn’t the Bijie authorities see these children hanging around? Why didn’t they act? But children’s shelters, where they exist, can only keep them for 10 days. Then they must send them home. Hence, most children run away from the shelters. There is only one answer to the boys’ tragedy: a society where parents can afford to live with their children. That’s a dream today.