A Chinese journalist who broke the story about the shocking death of five runaway boys in a dumpster in the southwestern province of Guizhou has "disappeared" after being forced into a vehicle by police, rights activists said.
Guizhou-based dissident writer Li Yuanlong, who has made a living as a cutting-edge freelance after leaving his job in state-run media, was taken away by police on the afternoon of Nov. 17 after he posted an online report with photographs on the discovery of the bodies of the boys two days earlier.
The news sparked an online outcry and led to the firing or suspension of eight officials and school staff for negligence.
The boys, aged 9 to 13 and all the sons of three brothers, died of carbon monoxide poisoning, apparently after burning charcoal inside the dumpster where they were taking shelter during a cold night in the Qixingguan suburb of Guizhou's Bijie city.
They were children of migrant parents, many of whom leave their children behind in their home areas due to difficulty in arranging adequate child care and schooling in their new employment areas.
"After Li was taken away by police that same afternoon, the human rights group for which he volunteers was able to reach him by phone, and Li indicated that he was in a police vehicle," the overseas-based rights group China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in an e-mailed
Li told his fellow activists he was being taken on "vacation," the group said.
Li has already served a two-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” and is often pressured by police to cease his freelance writing on sensitive subjects, CHRD said.
Liu Feiyue, head of the Hubei-based rights group China Rights Observer, said his organization had been the first to publish Li's story about the children's deaths online.
"I called Li Yuanlong on Wednesday, and he told me very hurriedly that he was in a police car," Liu said. "He said 'I have been vacationed.'"
"The reason for the 'vacation' was his report about the five street children who suffocated to death."
He praised Li for enabling China Rights Observer to be the first to publicize the tragedy. "It was all the work of Li Yuanlong," he said.
"After that, Li Yuanlong posted this story himself on the KD-net forums and various other places."
"Then the story became a hot topic."
Liu said Li had taken great risks in breaking the story.
"Li Yuanlong had always hoped he would be able to go overseas and take care of his son [whose health is poor]," Liu said. "But the Guizhou authorities wouldn't let him have a passport."
"They wanted him to stop writing articles and other activities."
Liu said that while Li had written very little of late, owing to pressure from the government, he had been unable to ignore the story of the five boys' deaths.
"I asked him if he feared trouble from the authorities, and he replied that it was too cruel, and that he couldn't worry about so many different things."
The Guizhou government has taken disciplinary action against eight officials and teachers in connection with the deaths of the boys.
The case threw the spotlight on the plight of migrant parents and families in impoverished rural areas. About 58 million children countrywide lack sufficient supervision or stay in the care of grandparents when their parents seek work in China's booming cities, reports have said.
Li began his journalistic career as a reporter on the Bijie Daily News, so he was familiar with the city.
However, he was arrested in September 2005 and sentenced nearly a year later to two years' jail for "incitement to subvert state power" by the city's Intermediate People's Court.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.