by Xinhua writers Zhou Yan and Hu Xing
GUIZHOU, Nov. 20 (Xinhua) -- As the world marks Universal Children's Day on Tuesday, the Chinese are mourning five street children who were found dead in a roadside dumpster last week.
Police said the boys had burnt charcoal for warmth in their humble shelter, but were poisoned by carbon monoxide.
On Friday night, the night they were believed to have died, it was drizzling in their home city of Bijie, in southwest China's Guizhou Province, and the temperature reached a low of 6 degrees Celsius.
The tragedy has triggered an outburst of grief from the Chinese. Many web users said it was a sore under the glory of the world's fastest-growing economy and reminded them of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl."
"Let's light up their paths to heaven with candles, and may the children -- who did not even have a match to keep them warm -- never suffer again from bitter cold and hunger," wrote a web user with the screen name "linfei's mom" on Weibo.com, a Twitter-like microblogging site.
City authorities in Bijie published the names of the five children Tuesday morning, after a decision late on Monday to penalize eight people in connection with their deaths.
The children, aged from nine to 13, were from the same extended family in Xinghaizijie Township, Qixingguan District in the city of Bijie. Four of them were drop-outs and the other one also cut school often.
Their deaths prompted the sackings of two local school principals and four government officials in charge of education and civil affairs. Two deputy heads of Qixingguan were suspended from duty pending a further probe.
LACK OF CARE
While many web users accused the local government of negligence, others said the parents of the children were also to blame.
Bijie, a land-locked, resource-rich city with 7 million people, is perched on craggy mountains. Many local peasants fled home in search of city jobs, leaving their children under the custody of grandparents or distant relatives.
The five kids who died were cousins and their fathers were three brothers. Two of the fathers worked as trash collectors in Shenzhen, a boom city near Hong Kong.
Tao Yuanwu, father of two of the boys: 12-year-old Tao Chong and nine-year-old Tao Bo, was planning to force the boys back to school during his scheduled homecoming trip during the traditional Lunar New Year holidays in February.
A phone call from police authorities in his hometown, however, changed his schedule. He and his brother, Tao Xueyuan, arrived home on Monday, only to find their sons had all died.
"All five of them died..." he sobbed. "It wouldn't have happened if they had gone to school."
Despite their teachers' attempts at persuasion, the kids refused to return to education, saying they were getting poor grades and disliked learning, Tao said.
The five cousins often loitered in town together, said Tao Jinyou, father of 13-year-old Tao Zhonglin. "Sometimes they didn't even come home at night."
Tao Jinyou was the only father who stayed behind in their rural hometown, toiling on croplands for a living. Zhonglin quit school two years ago and sometimes helped him herd cattle. "At first, I sent him back to school by force. But every time he'd run away again, so I knew it was hopeless."
Distracted by poverty and laborious farmwork, he and his wife paid little attention to their son, let alone his brothers' sons.
The other four boys were supposed to be under the care of an ageing, blind grandmother who had difficulties even caring for herself, so most of the times, the kids just survived by themselves.
They had been away from home for three weeks when a trash collector found their bodies last Friday in a dumpster near the city center of Bijie, at least 20 km from their home village.
"We need to put the well-being of left-behind children at the top of our agenda," said Hu Jihong, deputy mayor of Bijie. "In fact, many uncared-for youngsters are wandering about the streets -- some even run away to other provinces."
He said it is essential for families and the government to care for these youngsters.
Though parents and caregivers play an irreplaceable role in providing for their children, the children's abnormal deaths reveal serious shortcomings in the world's second-largest economy.
"The 'bring children home' project launched by eight central government agencies last year was aimed at cleaning all China's city streets of homeless children by the end of this year. Why did city authorities in Bijie fail to notice these five kids who wandered the streets for three weeks?" the People's Daily said in a commentary on Tuesday.
"The future of our society lies in the well-being of children. Inadequate caring for the children will one day backfire and harm our nation," read the bylined article by Li Hongbing.
Merely a day before the deaths, China's new helmsman Xi Jinping stressed children's well-being in his very first public address.
"People want their children to have sound growth, have good jobs and lead a more enjoyable life," he told reporters last Thursday, when the newly elected members of the Standing Committee of the political bureau of the 18th CPC Central Committee made a group debut.
"Don't we feel like we are sitting on pins and needles when our children are roaming the streets and crammed in shoddy vehicles trekking to faraway schools?" the People's Daily article asked.
Shanghai-based academic Fu Ping said he saw a pressing need for laws to safeguard children's welfare and provide governmental aid to homeless minors. "Such laws will help ensure adequate funding to provide for needy children."
In China, government spending is a major source of funding to aid street children.
"Further legislation will encourage more private investors to give a helping hand", said Hu Yanping, a private business owner in Changchun, capital of northeast China's Jilin Province.
Hu founded China's first nursing home for mentally disabled people in 2002 and has sheltered dozens, mostly street children.
"The private sector has a larger role to play in helping needy children," she said. "But this is a tough job that cannot be done by any single person or organization. We need to work more closely with government agencies and better coordination is necessary to improve efficiency -- so when an issue concerning street children comes up, we know which government department to report to."
Official figures indicate China has over 150,000 street children, about half of whom have fled home over family disputes.
"Concerted efforts from the government, non-governmental bodies, schools and families are called for to solve the issue," said Wei Zusong, a sociologist who has followed the issue in Guangzhou. Enditem
(Additional reporting by Chen Qiang in Guiyang, He Yue in Changchun, Huang Anqi in Shanghai, Xia Xiao and Yao Yuan in Beijing.)