Rest in Peace: The Dead Children of Guizhou

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Since the discovery in mid-November of the bodies of five young boys in China's Guizhou province, the Chinese leadership has sought to distract attention from the case. Reporting on the deaths by SPIEGEL was also hindered.

Photo Gallery: Reporting Hindered in Guizhou Province Photos
Bernhard Zand/ DER SPIEGEL

On Nov. 15, 2012, seven men stepped onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. One walked over to a lectern decorated with flowers to face the cameras and microphones. The Communist Party had just named him its general secretary, he said, and the "heavy responsibility" of ruling China now rested on his shoulders and those of the six other men.

The appearance of Xi Jinping, the country's designated leader, took most of the international correspondents in attendance by surprise. He apologized for being late before going on to praise the "friends from the press" for being so "dedicated, professional and hard-working."

It was an unusual message in a country in which journalists work under difficult conditions. A reporter with the Al-Jazeera news network was forced to leave the country in May, and Chinese authorities blocked access to the website of business news agency Bloomberg in June and that of the New York Times in October. In August, correspondents for German publications in China asked Chancellor Angela Merkel to press the Chinese to improve working conditions for foreign journalists in the country.

Many Chinese reporters were also impressed by Xi's speech, which differed from those of his predecessors. "Our people have great enthusiasm for life," he said, among other things. "They wish that children will grow better, work better and live better."

Impoverished Province

On that Nov. 15, the city of Bijie, about 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) southwest of Beijing, was cloaked in the cool, dense fog for which Guizhou, one of China's poorest provinces, is notorious. It began to drizzle in the afternoon and the temperature fell to 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit), the coldest it had been so far that autumn.

A pedestrian noticed five boys playing soccer on the sidewalk along Huandong Lu, a wide street on the city's outskirts. The children, between 9 and 13 years old, were skipping school and had been hanging out in the neighborhood for days. They were wearing filthy parkas and thin cotton trousers, and one of them had no socks. They spent their days in an underpass at the entrance to the local university, begging for money from students, and at night they had slept in a makeshift hut they had built with rubble and tarps on a construction site.

But on the night of Nov. 15, it was so cold that they hit upon a different idea. They climbed into one of five dumpsters, each of them measuring about two by one meters (six by two feet), standing next to the road. Then they lit a fire in the dumpster and closed the four lids from the inside.

At 7:30 the next morning, garbage collector Sun Qingying opened one of the lids. She is 83, lives with her husband in a hut across the street and begins her daily work, as always, at the five dumpsters on Huandong Lu. She retrieved a few pieces of coal from the first dumpster and two plastic bottles from the second one. When she opened the third container, she was initially confronted with the acrid smell of fire, and then she made out five lifeless children lying next to each other. One of them had white foam coming from his mouth and nose. Sun tried to revive the children with a stick, but they didn't wake up. "They're dead! They're dead!" she screamed. A passerby called the police.

A few hours later Li Yuanlong, 52, was standing at a bus stop in Bijie, where he overheard two other people saying that five children had been found dead in a dumpster near the university.

In his years spent working as a journalist for the government-run Bijie Daily, Li had written a number of reports about corruption and abuse of power that got him into hot water with the city and district government. He was determined to investigate the story he had just overheard. At some point in the last few years, there was a moment when Li felt an inner connection to his country being destroyed. In 2005, after writing an essay titled "How One Becomes an American in Spirit," charges were filed against him and he was sentenced to two years in prison. He served the entire term, much of it in solitary confinement.

After being released from prison, Li sold his apartment and, using the money as collateral, applied for an American visa for his son Muzi. To his surprise, the visa was issued, and Muzi is now attending a college in Ohio.

Deaths Shock China

Li began researching the story on Nov. 16, the day the five dead boys were discovered. He posted his first report on the Internet the next morning, but no one seemed to notice it. Li continued his research, making phone calls and interviewing neighbors and pedestrians on Huandong Lu. On Nov. 18, he posted a second, more detailed report online.

This time the reaction was immediate and intense. Within hours, Li's report was the most-read and most-talked-about news story on the Chinese Internet. "I can't believe that something like this is happening in China today," one person wrote. "Where are the authorities that should be handling these cases, and where were the parents?" Another reader remarked: "Even though you died in a dumpster, you're not garbage." Finally, a third person wrote: "Rest in peace. Don't reincarnate in China."

It wasn't just the death of these children that was so shocking to the Chinese. The tragedy of Bijie reminded many of a story they had read in elementary school: Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Match Girl," in which a little girl freezes to death by the side of the road while the bourgeoisie pass by without paying her any heed.

"Vicious capitalists!" one blogger wrote, recalling Andersen's story. "That's how we were educated." Another one asked: "Why this sense of superiority about our system?"

Unemployed journalist Li's report created so much pressure that the official media finally weighed in on the story as well. On Nov. 19, the government-owned television network CCTV contacted Li and asked him to find the garbage collector. On Nov. 20, Universal Children's Day, state-owned news agency Xinhua published a report that even pointed out the contradiction between the deaths of the five children and Xi's rousing words.

Now officials in Bijie released the names of the dead boys: Zhonglin, 13, Zhongjing and Chong, both 12, Zhonghong, 11 and Bo, 9, all had the same last name, Tao. They were cousins, the children of three brothers, two of whom were migrant workers in the booming city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. The boys had been left in the care of the third brother, who was struggling in the bitterly poor village where he lived. Conditions were so bad there that the boys had run away. The city of Bijie also fired or suspended eight officials, including the director of the elementary school the children had attended, and where they hadn't been seen in weeks.

But the children weren't the only victims. While he was doing his research for CCTV, state security officers parked their SUVs on Li's street and knocked on his door. They told him that things had gone too far, and that the case had been solved and he should delete his blogs and stop working on the story. Li refused. They threw him and his wife into a car, took them to the provincial capital Guiyang and put them on a flight to Haikou on Hainan, a resort island in the South China Sea.

When someone recognized the prominent dissident there, two officials dragged him off to another city. They told Li that the authorities had in fact considered issuing him a passport after the 18th party congress, so that he could visit his son. But that, they added, was now no longer an option. "Assume that you won't see your son for the next 10 years, and perhaps not even for the rest of your life," they said. They forced him to write a last blog entry, to the effect that he was traveling for personal reasons, to resolve a "family matter." After that, Li's voice fell silent, and he disappeared from the radar for the next four weeks.

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1. Put it down to negligence
pmoseley 01/08/2013
Competent journalism is not only about obtaining the facts and evidence. It's also not only about writing about those facts and evidence. It's also about maintaining the integrity of those facts and evidence. After all the surveillance and obstacles, the journalists in this article had to put up with, they go on to leave their facts and evidence in their hotel rooms to be destroyed. Didn't they think about taking all their electronic devices like mobile phones and iPads to dinner with them - it's not rocket science, is it?
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