China is soul searching (again) after four “left-behind” children die from poisoning

Guizhou province, southwest China.
Guizhou province, southwest China.
Image: Reuters/Sheng Li
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Chinese premier Li Keqiang addressed the media today (link in Chinese) after a 13-year-old boy and his three younger sisters died from consuming pesticides at their home in Bijie, a small county in rural southwest China earlier this week. The youngest of the children was just five years old. Early media reports pointed to one element of the story as an explanation for the deaths: The children had been ”left behind,” meaning their parents had left the countryside to find work in a city.

In reality, the reasons for the deaths remain unclear. Some media painted it as a suicide (link in Chinese); it might also have been an unfortunate misadventure. Either way, the case has led to uncomfortable questions about dire rural poverty, domestic abuse, and the lack of opportunities in China’s countryside.

Left-behind children are a symptom of China’s unequal development, in which its cities have prospered but its rural ares have remained largely undeveloped. Parents seeking work in China’s cities usually leave their children in the care of their grandparents, but the grandparents of the four children in this case had already passed away. The father, Zhang Fangqi, left the children to fend for themselves in March, after their mother left home a year earlier.

Such stories aren’t unknown in Chinese media. Three years ago, again in Bijie, five boys aged 9 to 13 died in a dumpster after climbing in, lighting a fire, and closing the door. They had run away from home and were trying to keep warm.

Bijie makes up the northwest corner of Guizhou, China’s poorest province, and one that supplies many of the country’s famous migrant workers who leave their children behind to power China’s developed cities. This year the province announced it will build 1,000 service centers to provide assistance to left-behind children, offering housing, food, and psychological help. That will help somewhat, but one government group estimates that over 60 million children in China live without their parents—and that over 2 million of those live completely alone.

Later reports about the siblings in Bijie added that the children had suffered severe domestic violence; the father broke his son’s arm and ripped off one of his ears, according to a Xinhua report (link in Chinese). Chinese law is only just now catching up with this social problem. Until last year, it hadn’t even defined domestic violence.