Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou have taken 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 has prompted a huge outcry among netizens concerned over the protection of minors and threw the 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.
The eight, who included school principals and government officials, had been dismissed and suspended over the death of the children, all boys, who were left behind by their parents who had migrated to work in factories on China's richer east and southern coastal regions, official media quoted local government as saying on Tuesday.
"[The] tragic deaths spurred an outburst of grief from the public, who blamed the children's caregivers and local government for failing to take care of the young lives," the state-run Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.
The five boys, Tao Zhongjing, 12, Tao Zhonghong, 11, Tao Zhonglin, 13, Tao Chong, 12 and Tao Bo, 9, were residents of the Qixingguan suburb of Guizhou's Bijie city. They were all the sons of three brothers.
Two district-level officials in charge of education and civil affairs were sacked for "failing to fulfill their obligations," Xinhua said.
Two other officials were removed from their posts, along with two school principals from whose schools the boys had been truant, while another two officials from the Qixingguan district government were suspended from duty pending further investigations, the agency said.
"Family members and teachers had been searching for the children, who went missing three weeks ago, when their bodies were found, by a trash collector in a dumpster last Friday," Xinhua quoted Tao Zhonglin's father Tao Jinyou as saying.
He said the child had dropped out of school two years ago and had been working as a cattle herder outside the city.
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 enough.
Such children, they say, are a highly vulnerable group and are often left to fend for themselves with no adult support, and are at great risk of abuse and extreme neglect.
Police in Bijie city said in a statement that the boys died from carbon monoxide poisoning, as remains of burnt charcoal found inside the dumpster showed they might have burnt charcoal for warmth before they died.
Guizhou-based netizen and commentator Zeng Ning said the scandal has prompted a huge outcry among China's netizens.
"Most of the people who are most concerned about this incident are netizens," Zeng said, adding that local governments should be held responsible for "left behind" children.
"This is a question of the protection of minors, so this is the responsibility of the municipal authorities," he said.
Gaps in care
Kong Linghui, founder of the the group Charity Without Borders, said the boys' deaths had exposed huge gaps in the care of vulnerable children in today's China.
"The homeless shelters set up by the local government lack any sort of long-term effectiveness or guarantee of security," Kong said.
"Nongovernment groups have done some work in this area, but they rarely get any kind of support from the government."
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Beijing-based lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan drew a comparison with a recent incident in neighboring Hong Kong in which a gang of teenagers was arrested by police for beating a cat to death.
"The protection offered to small animals by Hong Kong law is stronger than that offered to children in mainland China!" Liu tweeted on Tuesday.
Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.