With China's economic growth the focus of national and international attention, it is easy to forget that the enormous changes taking place also have a social impact. Too often, it takes a tragedy to highlight awareness of a problem. The deaths from smoke inhalation of five boys in Guizhou province who lit a fire in a rubbish bin to keep warm have caused a public outcry. Through tragedy has come a realisation of the plight of street children and the need to improve the conditions of migrant workers and their families.
The boys, aged between nine and 13 years, were the sons of three brothers, two of whom work as refuse collectors in Shenzhen. Four were being taken care of by their aged, blind grandmother. All but one had dropped out of school. They were often seen on the streets of the city of Bijie scrounging for food. When a journalist learned of their fate and made it known on social networks, users were shocked and disgusted that children so young could be allowed to fall through the cracks.
Authorities, faced with an outpouring of anger, have been predictably quick and forceful in their response. Six officials, four in charge of education and civil affairs and two school principals, have lost their jobs. But that has not been enough to placate the critics, who rightly point out that it does not address the matter of the country's 58 million "left behind children", the sons and daughters of parents who have left poorer regions for jobs in booming eastern provinces. Nor does it go any way towards dealing with the issue of children having to fend for themselves, officially estimated at 150,000 but thought by non-governmental groups to number up to 1.5 million.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs last year launched a campaign to return street children to their hometowns and villages. But as the deaths of the boys show, more needs to be done. Despite the mainland's growing wealth, the social welfare system remains rudimentary. The concept of social workers is still new, while street children often end up in state orphanages.
Ultimately, though, at issue is the difficulties faced by migrant workers. The hukou, or household registration, system, which ties entitlements to home provinces, discourages families from moving together. Until wealth is more evenly distributed, families will continue to be broken up. They are problems that only time and greater government attention to providing a strong social security net can resolve.