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China's heartless response to suffering

State washes its hands of children's tragic deaths

  • Fr Shanren, Tianjin
  • China
  • January 4, 2013
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The Chinese government has issued a rather opaque message to its people: your suffering is not our responsibility.

This unusual directive came in the wake of the tragic death in November last year of five homeless children who took shelter from the bitter cold in a garbage collection box in downtown Bijie, Guizhou province.

The children died of carbon monoxide poisoning after setting fire to waste paper in the garbage box in a desperate but fatal attempt to stay warm.

There followed no outpouring of sympathy by local officials over the plight of the poor and indigent, no coordinated efforts by government agencies to ensure that those in need had a safe refuge against the elements.

Instead, officials posted notices on the outsides of garbage boxes across the city, stating clearly if also heartlessly: “Humans and animals are forbidden to enter. The consequences of violating this order are your own responsibility.”

I dismissed the news of these warning signs as some cruel prank until I saw photos of them. And I began to think about the nature of suffering and the ways in which human beings respond to the suffering of others.

I came to understand that evil and sin prosper when human beings forget, neglect or simply reject God.

Given the heartless response by the government to the deaths of five children, it seems clear that Communist China’s rejection of God has blinded the nation to such suffering.

But the preventable deaths of these children are not simply the product of sin or evil. Nor can it be blamed simply on a cruel winter. 

It wasn’t just the cold that drove these children to their deaths. It was the failure of the state to keep its people warm.

And the warnings posted on the garbage boxes? On one level, we might call such a response evil. On another level, it is much more simply explained as the state telling us that it refuses to accept any responsibility for the needs or suffering of its people. 

China’s economic development in the past decade has amazed the world, but the benefits have yet to reach the bulk of its people.

When news of the deaths began to circulate throughout China, some responded by distributing an online comic called The Little Lighter Boys.

It was a reworking of the old Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Little Match Girl, who walks the freezing streets selling matchsticks but is forced to light them to stay warm.

One reader commented on the comic: “I thought that The Little Match Girl would only exist in storybooks. I would not have expected it to really happen today, and that the reality would be far crueler than the story.”

Fr Shanren is the penname of a priest in mainland China

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