A recent report about a 14-year-old orphan has shaken the country. It has exposed the best and the worst of human nature as well as the complete indifference of the Communist Party towards the ‘masses’ that supposedly form its bedrock.
Yang Liujin’s father died when he was six, and his mother remarried and left him with his grandparents in their village in a poor, minority-dominated county in a province bordering Vietnam. After they died four years back, the 10-year-old was left alone. A cousin who worked in the city would send him 10 yuan (Rs 100) every week. The boy designed fishing tools and lived on plants, roots and fresh fish — a healthy diet compared to the chemicals polluting Chinese food these days! However, this caveman-like existence had a ‘New China’ touch — there was a school in his village and Yang continued attending it.
Another contemporary phenomenon changed Yang’s life: a CCTV team ‘discovered’ him and presented him to the world. The unkempt boy became an overnight celebrity. His story caught the eye of a school mistress in the ultra-modern metropolis of Shenzhen, far away from Yang’s village in time, though not too far geographically. She decided to take Yang in.
Yang’s cousin and the village authorities were only too happy to be rid of the boy who they had barely noticed. Since Yang was brought to school by the principal, everyone welcomed him, taking him to picnics over the weekend to the city’s many scenic spots. Suddenly, the child who had spent his days and nights cold, alone, hungry and in tatters, not only had new clothes, regular food, but, most importantly, friends his age as well. With no one and nothing in his old existence for Yang to miss, the boy blossomed in his new surroundings.
It had to be too good to be true. Yang had barely begun savouring this idyllic existence when, as in a Charles Dickens novel, the villains came knocking. The CCTV story had generated so much sympathy for the orphan that donations had poured in, amounting to the unbelievable sum of five million yuan! Who would manage this treasure? His cousin, who used to give him 10 yuan a week, and the officials of his village, decided they were best fit to do so. But that would not have been possible without the presence of the recipient.
So, a fortnight after Yang had been admitted into the Shenzhen school, these worthies landed up, demanding that he come back to “sort out the donation matters”. Besides, he needed to sit for his exams in his old school. The headmistress resisted, leading to confrontations in the local police station. The publicity given to Yang, his county officials argued, had made the village “lose face”. That lost honour had to be regained. The cousin promised not to swallow Yang’s millions, the officials said they would supervise him.
Did Yang want to leave? He knew what awaited him. After the taste of school life in Shenzhen, his village existence must have seemed like a bottomless pit. But his “guardians” won the day. The situation reached flash point when the vultures descended on Yang’s school as he was at his farewell party, and insisted he accompany them immediately. News photographs showed heart-rending scenes of Yang being forcibly taken away even as he clung to his friends and teachers.
Even the official press knew Yang’s life was over. They blamed the government for his tragedy. Yang wasn’t the rare orphan living a miserable life, they wrote. Thanks to China’s urbanization since 1980, villages have emptied out, leaving behind the old and the very young. An estimated 6,25,000 Yangs remain unnoticed. Why hadn’t the government created a foolproof social welfare system to look after them?