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."
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.
'No One Paid Any Attention to Them'
In the meantime, SPIEGEL had also begun researching the case of the five dead children. In late December, my colleague Wu Dandan and I traveled to Bijie. We didn't know Li Yuanlong's whereabouts, but shortly before we arrived in the city we managed to establish contact with him without alarming his minders. We met him on a street corner and, without greeting each other, followed him to his apartment, careful to keep a distance of a few meters. Only one room in the apartment was heated, and only sparsely at that. It was the room where Li kept his computer, to which he had attached two pennants, in the colors of the British and the American flags.
When Li told us about his arrest, his research and his abduction, it was with the muffled fury of a journalist who has been repeatedly prevented from reporting on what he knows. When he talked about his son in Ohio, he paused and swallowed. And when he reached the point in his story when the police came knocking on his door, there was another knock on the door. Li placed his finger over his mouth, disappeared for a few minutes, returned and said quietly: "That was one of the neighborhood security men. He had noticed movement." A few days after his return from Hainan, Li said, outgoing President Hu Jintao was in Bijie, and after that he was no longer guarded as closely as before. But that, he said, would likely change again.
We stayed there until shortly before midnight, by which time Li had received numerous calls on his mobile phone. We agreed to meet him discreetly the next day in a busy part of the city, near the underpass where the five boys had spent time in the days before they died.
"Just next to it are a police station and a district administration building," said Li. "The officials saw the children every morning for three weeks when they arrived at the office, but no one paid any attention to them."
When we left Li's apartment, we saw the outline of a man behind the stairs, and we also noticed an SUV parked in the dark alleyway, its windows slightly opened. When we returned to our hotel, there were five police officers waiting for us. They filmed our arrival, checked our papers and then accompanied us to the doors of our rooms. They wanted to question us, but we asked them to wait until the next morning and went into one of the two rooms. After a while, the police officers left our floor.
Li seemed tense when we met him briefly the next morning. That afternoon, he contacted us and suggested that we continue our research without him, because there were security officials at his door and he would only cause trouble for us.
Intimidation of Potential Sources
We had trouble anyway. When we spoke with neighbors and passersby at the site where the boys' bodies were found, men and women who hadn't been involved in the interviews intervened after a while, urging them not to speak with us and suggesting that there would be consequences if they did.
Many allowed themselves to be intimidated, but some didn't. Mao Hai, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student, told us that he remembered the children well. "It was cold, and they were sitting on the steps here. They didn't harm anyone." Others, like a woman named Lu who runs a restaurant, noticed how quickly the police had cleared everything away from the site where the boys' bodies were found. By 8:30 a.m., when local merchants had arrived at their shops, there was nothing left to see, and the five dumpsters were removed soon afterwards, said Lu.
A man named Zhao introduced himself as the deputy director of the local office for foreigners and overseas Chinese. He spoke some English and said that he had been assigned to work with us. We asked him to let us work in peace, but he continued to impose himself. When we requested interviews with officials from the city administration, the welfare offices and the school authority, he turned us down, but he did say that he could arrange a trip to the village the boys had left.
The three-hour drive gave us an impression of the challenges involved in governing Guizhou Province. The muddy roads were filled with bathtub-sized potholes, and hundreds of children stood shivering in the cold fog. China's one-child policy doesn't apply to its ethnic minorities, many of which live in Guizhou. At the same time, the region is so poor that about 2 million of Bijie's population of 7 million people are forced to work in the wealthy coastal cities, like the father of four of the dead boys.
When we arrived at the village, neighbors prevented us from meeting with the boys' family. It was unclear to us whether this was because the family didn't want to see us, or whether the presence of Zhao and our other escorts intimidated them.
When we returned to the city, one of the police officers from the hotel joined us for dinner. After apologizing for the rude reception on the previous evening, he tried to ascertain what our next plans were. He also suggested that we refrain from reporting too critically on conditions in Bijie, noting that criticism is bad for the investment climate in the region. We remained under observation, and government agents sitting in the lobby filmed us whenever we left the hotel.
The next morning, people whom we had planned to meet suddenly failed to appear. Others received calls warning them about us as we were speaking with them. When Zhao interrupted a conversation we were having with a local resident, I asked him to leave us alone. He responded: "Okay. But then you will not be my business anymore." We weren't sure whether to interpret this as a promise or a threat.
That afternoon, we hailed a cab for the trip back to the provincial capital Guiyang. Minutes later, our driver received a phone call that he didn't really want to discuss. The drive took six hours, and by the time we arrived we had missed our return flight to Beijing. We decided to spend the night in Guiyang. It was only while taking another taxi back into the city that we chose to stay at the local Kempinski Hotel. After we had checked in, I loaded the remaining pictures I had taken in Bijie from my camera's memory card onto my laptop. We went to the hotel restaurant for dinner at about 9 p.m..
Reporters' Equipment Destroyed
When we returned at 10:30 p.m., the light was on in my room, the bedspread had been pulled back and the curtains were closed. When I switched on my camera I noticed that my memory card was empty. My iPad had been plugged in incorrectly and I couldn't switch it on anymore. Water was dripping from the plugs for the headphone and the charger. A mobile phone that I had left in the room had also been submerged in water. All the files on the desktop of my computer -- and that of my colleague -- had been deleted. Someone had broken into our rooms while we were out and manipulated and destroyed our devices.
I informed the management. After half an hour, the manager on duty came to the room and urged us to leave Guizhou Province and refrain from filing charges. I declined. Instead, I photographed the surveillance cameras installed in the elevator and the hallway. The cameras covered the doors to my room and that of my assistant, which meant that the people who had broken into the rooms must have been recorded.
We filed a complaint the next morning. The officers were friendly and cooperative, and when I told them about the surveillance cameras, two of them returned to the hotel with us and asked for the tapes. The hotel's head of security and one of the officers went into the surveillance room, but we weren't allowed to join them.
When the officer returned after half an hour, he told us that -- regrettably -- nothing had been recorded between Dec. 26 and Dec. 30. I suggested that they check the electronic door lock logs, and the officer asked a hotel employee to give him the logs. The man disappeared for a moment, and when he returned he said: "Our hotel doesn't keep such logs."
We flew back to Beijing on Sunday, Dec. 30. On Monday, Dec. 31, the New York Times reported that Chris Buckley, one of its China correspondents, was being forced to leave the country on the last day of the year.
We heard from Li Yuanlong for the last time on Thursday. We had asked him to send us two photos that had been stored on the erased memory card. I had saved other photos in a safe spot on my hard drive. Li told us that he had sent the pictures, and that he was doing well.
But the photos never arrived, and we haven't been able to reach Li since.
In keeping with tradition, Zhonglin, Zhongjing, Bo, Chong and Zhonghong were buried without a ceremony. The two fathers who had come to the funeral from Shenzhen have since returned there, where they work as garbage collectors.
An assortment of discarded items remains behind on the construction site along Huandong Lu, where the children slept for three weeks: a badminton racket, a broken broom, a crushed chocolate-milk container, a dirty ice-cream cup.
Shortly before the end of the year, the Bijie official in charge of city cleaning reacted to the drama of the five dead children by having the following notice affixed to all dumpsters: "Strictly off-limits to people and animals. Violate at your own risk." China's bloggers were speechless at first, but then they protested. The signs have since been taken down.