On the morning of November 16, an elderly scavenger made a terrible discovery in a trash bin in the city of Bijie, in China’s remote Guizhou province. He found the bodies of five boys, aged nine to thirteen and all brothers or cousins; they had apparently died from carbon monoxide poisoning from burning charcoal to keep warm.
The boys’ deaths highlight the phenomenon of “left-behind children” in China. As Raymond Li writes in the South China Morning Post, the five boys were all the children of “busy farmers or migrant workers who had left for other cities.” All were from Caqiangyan village, a poor community abandoned by most of its adults in search of work.
Four of the boys had dropped out of school due to “poor performance.” Only one boy’s father, Tao Jinyou, had informed district and township authorities that his son had been missing for three weeks; he said that officials had not responded to his requests for help.
Journalist Sent On “Vacation” After Reporting Boys’ Deaths
Local authorities were equally slow to confirm the tragic story, only doing so after several days of outrage about it on the Internet. Li Yuanlong, a former reporter for a Bijie daily, had broken the story of the five boys’ death and posted photos of their bodies soon after they were found. The following Wednesday, he was†sent on a “vacation” by local authorities who put him on a plane to an unknown “tourist” destination. Li had already served two years in jail for writing too many “negative” stories.
China’s “Left-Behind Children”
The five boys’ death has triggered “soul-searching” in the mainland Chinese media about who is to blame and what social factors may have caused the tragedy, says Li. He notes that the boys’ case is in some way “typical” of China’s estimated 58 million “left-behind children,” the “byproducts of broken families, the country’s uneven economic boom and demanding examination-centric school system.”
Li cites a recent report from a Beijing-based group, the 21st Century Education Research Institute, that suggests that, in China’s educational system, those children who do not perform according to stringent standards simply give up:
The Beijing-based civic organisation found that dropout rates among rural primary pupils had by 2008 risen nearly 6 per cent higher than they were even in the late 1990s, a period notorious for mass dropouts at rural schools. It blamed a reckless closure of rural schools.
The number of rural schools has fallen 52 per cent in the past decade under a plan to improve education quality. The situation was even worse for small village-level schools, of which 60 per cent were closed during that same period.
Indeed, it is likely that rural dropout rates are even higher, as many children leave villages with their parents who are seeking work in the cities. Under Chinaís household registration (or Hukou) system, migrant families are required to be registered in their hometowns even if they live far away in cities. Without registration, families cannot receive state-subsidized services including those for health and education. Migrant children in cities must attend cheap, privately-run schools that are mostly unregulated by authorities.
Is China’s Test-centric Education System To Blame?
Professor Chu Zhaohui of the National Institute of Education Sciences told the South China Morning Post that school officials are required to keep track of students who drop out and pinned the blame for the boys’ deaths on them. Eight local Bijie officials, including the principals of two of the local schools some of the boys once attended, have indeed been sacked or suspended from their positions.
But Chu also emphasized that “Some of the street children are simply driven out of school because they couldn’t have a sense of belonging under a test-centric school regime.”
The sad fates of the five boys, and the plight of China’s millions of left-behind children, more than suggest that the country’s economic successes are very unevenly distributed. As Li Fangping, a Beijing lawyer investigating the five boys’ deaths, says with reference to the recent change of leadership in China’s ruling Communist Party, “What we’re seeing now is at odds with the harmonious and beautiful China that new leadership tries to project to the world.”
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Photo by Edward Allen L. Lim