Eight officials in the Guizhou city of Bijie have been sacked or suspended for failing to protect the welfare of five boys found dead in a rubbish bin last week.
The victims, aged nine to 13, appeared to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning, after climbing into the dumpster and lighting a fire to escape the cold, the Bijie municipal government said in a statement yesterday.
The deaths, which were not made public for several days, prompted criticism of the local government.
They drew renewed attention to the plight of the mainland's street children, who are often the byproducts of broken families, migrant labour and a test-centric education system.
"This incident has exposed some of the weaknesses in social management, social aid and our work in preventing school drop-outs in Bijie," the government said.
Its statement was the first acknowledgement of the incident, even though the bodies were discovered in the rubbish bin by an elderly scrap collector during the early morning hours of Friday.
Reports of the discovery had circulated on the internet, fuelling widespread outrage at the police, civil affairs and city management authorities for failing to protect the boys, who were from Caqiangyan village in Qixingguan district.
Yesterday, the government said that deputy district directors Gao Shoujun and Tang Xingquan had been suspended pending further investigation of the matter. Gao oversees Qixingguan district schools.
The principals at two locals schools once attended by the children were fired. The Bijie government also urged the local legislature to sack directors of the district's education and civil affairs bureaus, as well as a township director overseeing Caqiangyan village and his deputy.
The government statement quoted Tao Jinyou, father of one of the victims, Tao Zhonglin, 13, as saying his son had disappeared three weeks ago. Tao said district and township officials had ignored pleas for help to find the boy.
The parents of the other children were all working in other cities or too busy in the fields to look after their children, Tao said. Another parent said four of the boys had dropped out of school because of poor performance.
Professor Wang Jingbo, of the Chinese University for Political Science and Law, said the mainland's children's shelters were often so poorly funded they could barely provide the assistance they are required to under the minor protection law.
She said the proliferation of street children was becoming a serious problem on the mainland as an increasing number of poor rural parents leave home to find work in larger cities.
Professor Chu Zhaohui, of the National Institute of Education Sciences, said school authorities are required to take note of any dropouts and should hold the blame for the boys' deaths. But he also held a school system that is obsessed with exams responsible.
"Some of the street children are simply driven out of school because they couldn't have a sense of belonging under a test-centric school regime," Chu said.