Authorities in the central Chinese province of Hubei have denied online reports that seven children froze to death at a child welfare center, saying instead that the children died of illness.
In a Feb. 23 post on the Huasheng and Tianya discussion forums titled "Who is being cruel to disabled children?,"a netizen identified as Yun Tian said he had visited the Shiyan Municipal Welfare Center on Feb. 23 with his family.
"We found a 13- to 14-year-old girl with her face covered in bruises and cuts, and we asked her who had beat her," the post said. "The little girl didn't dare to say, for fear of being beaten by Auntie Wang."
The poster said he had asked staff there why there was no heating in the rooms, where a number of children were shivering from the cold.
"There was a woman there who told me with tears in her eyes that during the winter of 2012, seven children had died of the cold, and that their arms and legs had become pulpy from the cold," Yun Tian wrote.
An official who answered the phone at the Shiyan municipal department of civil affairs said an official probe into the children's deaths had already begun.
"We have already sent a task force down there," the official said, but directed further enquiries to information officials.
An official who answered the phone at the civil affairs department's propaganda office said the report from the investigation had yet to be finalized.
"I don't think we can say yet that they died of the cold," he said. "We can neither confirm nor refute [the Internet report] at this stage."
However, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday that the children had all died of illness, not from the cold.
"An initial investigation found that all had died of illness, refuting online rumors that they had frozen to death at the center in Shiyan city," the agency quoted the investigation task force as saying.
It said the team would further probe the children's deaths and determine whether or not the center was guilty of child abuse.
All seven children had been abandoned with serious congenital diseases, according to the team.
Four of the children had congenital heart disease, one was born without an anus, one had been born premature, and one had cerebral palsy, Xinhua said.
The report was among the most retweeted posts on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo, according to the Hong Kong University's China Media Center.
String of scandals
Shenzhen-based current affairs commentator Zhu Jianguo said the report was the latest in a string of child welfare scandals to shake Chinese netizens, following the deaths of five "left-behind" children in a Guizhou dumpster last year.
"There is a huge, ongoing dispute about the welfare of orphans and abandoned children across China, and the government won't spend money or do anything about it," Zhu said. "It even interferes with nongovernment groups who try to care for them."
"Against such a backdrop, it would be surprising if nothing really bad happened to these kids."
He said officials are unwilling to invest funds in projects that are relatively invisible.
"The crucial fact is that the government simply doesn't represent the lowest levels of society; they represent the rich and powerful," Zhu said.
'Run by government'
Jin Hanyan, a petitioner from Shiyan city, said he had been locked up in a similar government-run welfare center by officials angry over his repeated complaints against the local government.
"They are run by government at every level," he said. "But if you are an elderly person in one of those place, they don't give you anything to eat or drink, and they take away all your welfare and social assistance payments."
"If the elderly get sick, they beat them with poles, because it reflects badly on them."
Last November, authorities in the southwestern province of Guizhou took disciplinary action against eight officials and teachers in connection with the deaths of five children of migrant workers whose bodies were found in a dumpster where they had apparently been living.
The case prompted an outcry among netizens concerned over the protection of minors and threw a spotlight on the plight 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.
Officials estimate that around 150,000 street children roam China’s cities, and have boosted the number of homeless shelters to try to help those in direst need.
But experts say social provision for the homeless is still far from adequate.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.