This is what a famous fairy tale writer named Zheng Yuanjie had to say: “November 15 is a date that Chinese should remember forever. Five children from Guizhou, ranging from seven to thirteen years old, choked to death in a dumpster, caused by the fire they lit to keep themselves warm.” He posted these words on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, on November 18 as but one among millions of comments on the tragedy that occurred two days ago in in Bijie, Guizhou, a less-developed province in Southwest China.
On November 16, hours after new leader Xi Jinping took the reins of power in China, five boys who were later confirmed to be relatives were found dead in a dumpster; according to the Wall Street Journal, the youngest was in fact nine years old. According to a police investigation, they died from carbon monoxide poisoning, believed to be caused by a fire they lit that night to keep themselves warm. Four of the five were drop-outs who had been run out of home just weeks earlier. During their disappearance, parents and school-teachers had reportedly been searching for them. On November 20, the vice district governors in charge of civil affairs and education were suspended and placed under investigation.
Grief and outrage pour forth
This news soon became the top breaking news on Weibo, attracting over 4 million comments. They evinced mixed and complicated emotions, but anger, sadness, helplessness, and frustration predominated.
Many commentators expressed outrage using a line from a poem wrote by Du Fu back in 755 A.D.: “[While] the meat and wine in rich families have rotted, the poor die hungry and cold by the roadside.” Zuo Yeben (@作业本), a famous Weibo commentator, wrote: “‘Five kids died in a dumpster’—the most miserable declarative sentence of 2012”. The Editor in Chief for Wall Street Journal China (@袁莉wsj) wrote, “The stories from my childhood textbook of a dark, cold capitalist society are now happening [here].”
Other devastated Web users turned to satire. State-controlled China Central Television (CCTV), which has taken fire for a recent focus on Chinese happiness that many find transparent and self-serving, became a particularly popular target. @红太郎fjr chided, “Five young boys died like this. CCTV likes asking people ‘are you fulfilled?’ Go ask these kids”.
Searching for answers, and perhaps scapegoats
One commentator (@木尔) with more than 40 thousands followers contrasted the death of these boys with the wealthy life led by the Party Secretary from the same city, who the blogger complained has a weakness for luxurious leather belts: “[The cost of] any one of his belts could easily cover many people’s foods and clothing.”
Indeed, the search for a culprit ranged far and wide: Sloppy governance, careless parents and schools, an indifferent community. Web users were not the only angry ones. An article titled “Children’s Helplessness [Leads to] Questions [About] Social Baseline” appeared on the ninth page on People’s Daily on November 20. It’s significant that this story appeared not only online, where liberal voices tend to reside, but also in the print version of a Party-line newspaper. The editorial stated, “[A proposal has been put forth that] by the end of 2012, Chinese cities will try to have no more juveniles on the streets. If so, why did relevant departments did not see these ‘street’ boys in Bijie and protect them?”
Other commentators cautioned that officials were being turned into scapegoats. As @bll2012 opined: “We are used to finding scapegoats when we encounter problems, then they give you a scapegoat! Then you shut up! You are so pathetic! Why not find the real cause: The failure of the social protection system.” Independent Chinese media Caixin (@财新网) also sounded a note of caution: “The tragedy in Guizhou did not only reflect management loopholes in Bijie alone, but also the defects of the mechanism protecting Chinese children’s rights. China is among the few countries that does not have a professional child welfare department. Administrative systems for child protection and rescue urgently need to be built.”
Moving forward in sadness
While the vivid and horrific particulars of this story no doubt brought it to quick nationwide and international attention, commentators both on- and offline seemed aware that a far more complicated interplay of social issues relating to China’s breakneck development lurked in the background. Until more robust mechanisms for protecting the youngest Chinese are put in place, children from poor or troubled families will continue to live at risk.
One undeniable fact: All of these debates will now occur in a world that none of the five lost boys will have a chance to experience. As fairy tale writer Zheng Yuanjie concluded: “Though you left the world in a dumpster, you are not trash. The irresponsible adults are. A child frozen to death means a future frozen to death. Beijing spent 800 million RMB to [heat the city for an additional 15 days this winter], but still did not warm you … please forgive us.”