China's gigantic economy isn't the only thing making headlines around the globe. The country's increasingly serious social problems are also drawing the world's attention.
Four siblings, a boy and three girls aged between 5 and 13, were found dead on June 9 in Bijie, a city in the southwest province of Guizhou. The children took their own lives by drinking pesticide and a suicide note written by the eldest boy was found, according to local police report.
The four siblings’ story was typical of the 60 million children in China whose parents have left them behind to find work elsewhere. Their father, Zhang Fanggi, has been a migrant worker for 10 years and only returns home twice every year. In 2013, their mother had an affair and left the family. Though the father sent money home regularly and the local government claimed to have provided financial support to the family and visited the four children regularly, they were deprived of love and care.
“Thanks for your kindness, I know you treat me well, but I should go. I’d vowed to leave the world before I turned 15. Death is my longtime dream. All things are cleared today,” read a suicide note reportedly written by the 13-year-old brother.
The boy was born in Bijie, and the three girls were born in southern Hainan province where the couple had worked. The couple eventually took all their daughters (deemed illegal by the country's one-child policy) home and paid the fine for violating the policy.
About half of the 2,480 farmers in the remote village leave for jobs in big cities. The primary school where the siblings went has 158 “left-behind” children.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang ordered an inquiry into the case to prevent incidents like these from happening again. Several local officials in Bijie have been punished and sacked. But many have expressed their impatience on social media over the government's failure to address the problem earlier.
Experts have called on the government to provide more social benefits to the country’s migrant workers and to ensure that children can go with their parents as they migrate to other cities for work. However, the children of rural migrants are still barred from attending schools in many cities.
No other place in the world has such a huge group of children left behind, separated from their parents for years. A majority are tended to by old grandparents or relatives while about 2 million children live by themselves without any guardian. These children often suffer health and psychological problems.
Guo Yuguan, a research fellow with China Society of Economic Reform, explained the root cause of the problem back in 2012, when a similar tragedy happened in the same city — five left-behind boys, aged 13, 12, 11 and nine, were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning after lighting a fire inside a rubbish bin to keep warm on a winter night.
Too many tragedies have taken place for the left-behind children, we saw what happened to the 5 kids. There are more distressing stories, girls having been sexually assaulted, boys having been coerced to commit crimes. The root cause is that the government has forbidden left-behind children from accessing the cities’ education system.
Yet the government doesn't take to those promoting reform kindly. Xu Zhiyong, who advocates for equal education rights, was jailed for his work last year, and the government's crackdown on rights groups continues. These human miseries have not been addressed and remain unsolved.
As state media outlets stressed that the death of the siblings had nothing to do with poverty, people online seemed to lose much of their patience with the government. Below is a selection of comments one of the news threads on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. Many criticized government policies including rural development and education:
别再找借口2013：央视说与贫穷无关，低保卡上有3500元低保金，腊肉和不断出现的粮食画面，自圆其说是父母感情不和 […] 央视怎么能推卸责任？四名儿童服毒自杀社会怎么能没有责任？政策法规怎么能没有问题？央视怎么不引导社会和政府反思？推进社会公平，使政府承担更多的责任
“Don't find excuse 2013″: How can state TV say it had nothing to do with poverty and that their poverty subsidy account still had 3,500 yuan [approximately 550 US dollars] and there was dry meat and grains in the house. It put all the blame on the parents […] How can CCTV deny [the government’s] responsibility? Isn't society accountable for four children choosing suicide by drinking pesticide? Why doesn't TV encourage society and government to reflect upon the problem and advocate for a fairer society in which the government bears more responsibility?
“A world without you”: [The government advocates that] people who get rich at first should help the rest. But now the truth is the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The wealth gap separates people more and more. The government becomes wealthy, but it’s no use for common people.
熊子方同：那些说父母不对的人什么心态 你们有想过父母的感受么 因为贫穷不得已出去打工 难道他们不想让孩子在自己身边么？ 没有户口带在身边能上学么？ 你们以为外来务工人的子女上学很容易么？ 户口 借读费 没那么容易 ！大家对留守儿童多一些关爱吧
Xiong-zi-fang-tong: Do you understand those parents’ feelings? Out of poverty, they have to leave their hometown for employment in the city. Don’t they want to be together with their children? But the household register system bars their children from accessing the better schools in big cities. Please give more care to the left-behind children.
“Egg roll”: Why does [the government] only pay attention to this problem when terrible things like this happen? The houses of corrupt officials are brimming with cash, while people at the bottom of society suffer and starve. These children, who can't choose their parents, become victims. For the parents, it’s a mistake born of ignorance and inability, and for the government, it's a mistake born of negligence.
As public anger still simmered about the tragedy in Bijie, another horror involving a left-behind child was exposed. An 11-year-old left-behind girl was sexually assaulted by 18 old men for years in a village in Guangdong province.
Chinese media have revealed more and more cases of sexual assault against children, with 1.38 cases per day last year, according to official data. Above 1,000 female children under 14 have suffered sexual assaults just in Guangdong province alone during the years 2009-2012, according to local media outlet Caixin. An annual average of 90 children sexual assault cases have been tried in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in central China during the past three years, largely involving left-behind and migrant children.
The Chinese criminal law “whoring with a girl under the age of 14″ has allowed some of the perpetrators of these sexual assaults to avoid severe punishment. In the case of the recent sexual assault in Guangdong, some villagers blamed the girl for seducing the men and called her a whore. When the story broke on television, Weibo exploded with outraged comments:
Liu Yiyi: The Chinese law “whoring with a girl under the age of 14” is the most disgusting provision. Those bastards would get no sympathy even with the death sentence.
“Bean mixed”: It’s the current situation of China’s countryside. Sad and pitiful
Lan Feng: I curse these bastards to death. This is not about whether they were aware of the law or educated, it’s about what has been exposed about humanity that makes me disgusted!
Sadly, both the death of the four siblings and the sexual assault are just the tip of the iceberg. Similar tragedies will unfortunately continue to befall China's 60 million left-behind children as long as they are left with no love or care.