When Hope Dies

A nationwide uproar paralleled the investigation that led to the identification of five street children who suffocated in a large rubbish bin in the city of Bijie, Guizhou province.

Officials learned the victims were the sons of three brothers. The oldest boy was thirteen years old, the youngest nine. Eight civil affairs and education officials as well as a primary school director in the Qixing District were held partially accountable and severely reprimanded.

A child is a parent’s treasured flesh and blood. They are also our source of hope. It’s hard to imagine the grief felt by each of the three fathers who lost sons and nephews all at once.

I don’t have the heart to blame them for failing to fulfill their parental duties. The parents of most of these children are migrant workers or farm laborers. They toil long days, often far from home, simply to feed their families.

Because migrant and farm workers are often absentee parents, there is a lack of family communication that greatly affects the development of many of their children. The fact that four out of the five boys had dropped out of school is evidence of this communication gap.

Heartbreakingly, this isn’t a problem for only a few families in China. The phenomenon is so common that a special expression—留守儿童 or “liushou ertong,” translated “left-behind children”—has been coined to describe the offspring of migrant worker parents who cannot afford to take children to the cities where they work. So the sons and daughters stay behind in hometowns or villages, sometimes with inadequate adult supervision. Too often, they are not properly educated or cared for. The latest tragedy Bijie is a reminder of this sad situation.

Indeed, there are about 58 million left-behind children in rural areas across China today. Their needs cannot be ignored or handled passively. And unless something changes, the Bijie tragedy is bound to be repeated.

Yet this sad incident is about more than what happened to the families of a few left-behind children. Partial blame for the boys’ deaths rests with the schools, law enforcement agencies, and social relief organizations that failed to fulfill their responsibilities. These children had wandered the streets for three weeks before they climbed into the trash bin. During that time, no one extended them a helping hand.

A few days after they set out, relatives of the children had reported them missing. But the police didn’t find them. This makes one wonder whether the police looked very hard.

That the boys died only one minute’s walk from the local government’s administrative office reflects poorly on the authorities. It also should be noted that local social workers, who usually face all sorts of operational obstacles in China, were unable to help these youths.

After such tragedy, it’s easy to punish those deemed responsible. What’s more difficult is to find ways and mechanisms—quickly—to better protect the country’s huge number of left-behinds and street children.

It almost goes without saying that government agencies in all regions of the country should go to greater lengths to find and help similarly vulnerable children in their jurisdictions.

Protecting minors is society’s responsibility. Local governments must make every effort to protect the rights of minors when parents care for them in arbitrary manners. Such parents have no right to act that way.

Only when our entire society cares for our children can we imagine a better future for our nation. Only when children have a future can a nation hope.