BEIJING (NYT) - Squalid conditions at a "care centre" for vagrants in southern China ignited public outrage Monday (March 21) after reports that at least 21 people held there had died in just a few months, including an autistic boy who died after being given filthy food and water.
The deaths at the facility in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, came to light in an unusual exposé published by a state-run newspaper.
The case tapped into broad concerns in China over the government's treatment of the poor and disadvantaged, especially rural migrants vulnerable to discrimination and detention in Chinese cities.
Past cases of abuse have put the Communist Party on the defensive, and the government moved quickly Monday to address angry questions about the facility in Shaoguan.
Such centres are intended to care for the destitute, the mentally impaired and older people who become separated from their families, but critics say authorities use them to keep undesirables off city streets.
The accounts of crowding and neglect at the center suggest that government efforts fell far short.
The family of the 15-year-old boy who died, Lei Wenfeng, blamed officials who did not do enough to care for him or find his family after he wandered off from his father last year.
"Our wish is very simple," Lei Hongyong, the boy's uncle, said in a brief telephone interview Monday.
"We don't want things like this to happen in our country again. The safety and assistance systems must be improved, and we hope that the country will do a better job."
Lei Wenfeng's lonely death in December was reported Monday by The Beijing News.
The newspaper said at least 20 other people held at the same care centre for the homeless had died this year, according to records from a nearby funeral home.
On Monday, officials neither confirmed nor disputed that estimate.
News organizations in China have faced tightening censorship under President Xi Jinping.
But sometimes scandals move faster than officials, or the central government allows journalists to expose the misdeeds of local governments.
In this case, the revelations left Shaoguan officials scrambling to head off public and news media anger.
"This is a trauma for humanity," said an editorial in The Beijing News. "Just how many Lei Wenfengs died in this care centre, and why they died, should be investigated."
Later Monday, local officials announced that they had shut the centre in early March and had put four people in charge there under investigation after finding out about deaths in the centre, according to official news reports. The announcement did not say how many people had died.
Many people responded to the reports with demands for more information and for more to be done for homeless people who get lost.
"What problem does young Lei Wenfeng's death highlight?" said one comment on Weibo, a Twitter-like service. "It shows that human life is worth less than money."
"Who could believe there could be such a high death rate if there weren't abuses?" another Weibo user said. "These pitiable people can't be allowed to die for no reason."
The brutal conditions at the centre might not have been exposed if Wenfeng's father, Lei Hongjian, a factory worker, had not spent months looking for his son, recounting his grim journey in internet postings that drew journalists' attention.
Wenfeng died in a hospital on Dec 3, after about six weeks at the center.
By then he was an emaciated shadow of the gentle, quiet teenager who had slipped out of the dormitory room he shared with his father in August.
"His body was covered in scars," the older Lei wrote. "The deaths of these vagrant mentally impaired people are treated like dust. They're the most disadvantaged of all."
Lei comes from Hunan, a southern province, where his wife cares for their two younger children.
In 2015, Wenfeng went to live with his father in Shenzhen, a frenetic city of factories and commerce in southern Guangdong.
He would take Wenfeng to work in an electronics plant, where the boy would watch television in an office all day.
On weekends, father and son went for outings. The weekend before Wenfeng disappeared, his father had taken him to a park and they had eaten pizza and durian fruit, one of Wenfeng's favorites.
That night, Wenfeng told his father, "Let's do that again," one of the rare times he spoke his mind, according to The Beijing News.
But days later, Lei woke up early and saw that his son's bed was empty. "I was crazy with worry," Lei wrote. "I organized over 20 relatives and work mates and they searched for over a week, but there were no clues."
He placed notices on the internet, on the radio and in a newspaper.
He found video footage that showed Wenfeng had taken a subway train and then a bus before heading north.
But the trail ran cold.
Even as Lei and his family searched desperately, Wenfeng was in official hands.
Less than a week after he disappeared, he was picked up by police in Dongguan, an industrial district next to Shenzhen, after fainting at a bus station.
His feet were torn up from so much walking, and police took him to a hospital.
Ten days later, the hospital sent Wenfeng to an "assistance station" in Dongguan for vagrants, and nearly two months after that the station sent him to the care centre in Shaoguan, about 120 miles north.
There, he was mixed in with hundreds of other homeless inmates, many of them elderly or mentally impaired.
The problems at the care centre in Shaoguan were just part of a chain of failings that led to Wenfeng's death, according to the news report and Lei's online account of the search for his son.
Officials failed to register him in a missing person database, Lei said.
Hundreds of thousands of people go missing in China every year, and the government has tried to build a firmer safety net to care for them and reunite them with kin - especially children who may have been abducted.
The holding centre in Dongguan sent a notice and a photograph of Wenfeng to a local television station, where it appeared briefly over three days, Lei said.
Vital time that might have saved Wenfeng's life was lost while his father placed missing person notices online and in newspapers that officials never answered, he said.
"I checked online every day, and if they had registered him earlier, I could have found him earlier," Lei wrote. "My son needn't have died so inexplicably."
Lei and others have likened Wenfeng's death to the notorious case of Sun Zhigang, who died in custody in Guangdong in 2003.
Sun, a young designer, was beaten to death in a detention centre for migrants without proper papers, igniting a controversy that led Wen Jiabao, then the premier, to shut those centers.
The holding centres for vagrants helped fill a gap created by those closures, although the government has said they are a welfare measure, not a punishment.
The care centre in Shaoguan was run by contractors who took it over in 2010, and then began taking payments from local governments for admitting homeless people.
Former staff members said the centre appeared overwhelmed by the numbers, according to The Beijing News.
The head of Xinfeng County, where the care centre is, said Monday night that officials still had no firm handle on how many people held there had died.
But it was clear that conditions at the center were poor, including inadequate food and medical care, Ma Zhiming, the county head, said at a news conference.
He also suggested there was evidence that government officials had colluded in operating, and apparently protecting, the center.
Just how Wenfeng died is unclear.
The centre sent him to a hospital after he appeared exhausted. But he ate less and less, and days later he was dead.
He was a week from turning 16.
One doctor's report said Wenfeng had a tumor in his digestive tract.
Another medical report said he died of salmonella, according to news reports.
On Monday, China Central Television reported that "one of the causes of death was that he had consumed unclean food and water."
Contacted Monday, Lei declined to answer questions about his son's death.
But in his written account, he recalled the surge of relief when he found out the assistance station had taken in his son.
After a friend helped check the station's internal records, he called, yearning to hear his son's voice after months of waiting.
"I was very happy, very excited," Lei said. "I asked and they knew who he was, but then they told me: 'Your son is dead.'"