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Shocking killing sparks debate about China’s ‘left behind’ children

Gruesome death of 13-year-old boy in Hebei province turns spotlight on the lives of rural children whose parents leave to work in cities

Almost a month after the gruesome killing of a 13-year-old boy in the northern Chinese province of Hebei, prosecutors said on Monday that three of his classmates would be held criminally responsible. The three boys are all aged under 14 but a change in the law in 2021 means that children between 12 and 14 can be prosecuted for intentional killing by extremely cruel means.

Police said the boys dug a hole in the greenhouse over two days before killing their victim, who has been identified only by his surname Wang. He was beaten to death and his father said the boy’s body was badly disfigured while his uncle said his face was severely damaged.

“My child was alive on the afternoon of March 10th, but after 3.10pm, his phone went silent, and at 4.10pm, money was transferred from his phone, which was then turned off. He was brutally killed, with severe injuries to his face, and his body was buried,” his father said.

“I hope the government will be fair, open and just, impose severe punishment, and that the murderers will pay with their lives.”

China retains the death penalty for murder but it cannot be imposed on anyone who was under 18 at the time they committed the crime.

The boy transferred 191 Chinese yuan (€25) to one of his classmates just before his death. Zang Fanqing, a lawyer for the victim’s family, said the three suspects had been bullying the boy at school for a long time, something other classmates noticed.

“He once wrote a note to the classmate sitting in front of him, saying he didn’t want to go to class, he wanted to die,” one told Chinese state television CCTV.

Wang’s aunt said he would often ask his grandfather for money before going to school and she had seen a social media post in which the boy said he thought about suicide.

“I thought he was under academic pressure, so I told him: ‘Don’t feel any pressure about your studies. It doesn’t matter whether you study well or not,’” she told CCTV.

The killing has sparked a debate in China about how to punish extreme crimes committed by minors and also about the circumstances in which such children grow up. It has cast a spotlight on the 67 million children, more than one in five of all those under 17, in China who grow up apart from their parents most of the time.

The victim and the three suspects were all so-called “left behind” children, whose parents left their rural homes to work in cities. Some such children go to state-run boarding schools but most live with grandparents or other relatives.

China’s rapid economic development over the past 40 years has seen a mass migration from rural areas into the cities in the greatest urbanisation project in human history. Many parents leave their children in their home areas, partly because they work such long hours that they struggle to take care of them and paid childcare is expensive.

Another factor is China’s hukou system of household registration, which classifies citizens as agricultural and non-agricultural and limits the rights of migrant workers who move to the cities. The hukou system leaves most migrant workers registered in their rural hometowns or villages, a fact that determines their social welfare benefits and access to municipal services.

It also means that their children, who usually share their parents’ hukou, are at a disadvantage in winning places at city schools. And when they finish school they have to sit the gaokao, China’s highly competitive school-leaving examination, back in their home province.

Chinese researchers have been studying the health, school performance and incidence of delinquent behaviour among left-behind children for at least 20 years. But a number of incidents in the past decade have raised alarm among the public about the impact on children of growing up apart from their parents.

In 2015, three sisters and a brother aged between five and 13 who were being cared for by their grandparents in the southwestern province of Guizhou took their own lives by drinking pesticide. Some studies suggest that left-behind children have higher rates of depression, substance abuse and delinquent behaviour than their peers.

A study by psychologists from Beijing, Dalian and Chongqing published last year in the journal Behavioural Sciences found that left-behind children often developed coping strategies that made them more independent than their peers. But they were prone to depression and loneliness and adults who dealt with them described many of them as manifesting “sadness, inner tension and an inability to feel”.

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