Pictures of Hongbo sitting on ground with disheveled hair and a dirty face have gone viral on microblog Sina Weibo, evoking widespread anger and sympathy. Photo from the internet
At seven years old, little Hongbo (a pseudonym) can barely speak a word.
The boy from Qingfeng County, central China's Henan Province, has had a miserable childhood. His father is too poor to send him to school and his mentally ill mother frequently abuses him. No friends, no proper food and nobody to properly care for him. His only companionship is from the pigs kept by his father.
On Monday, a report carried by Henan's local newspaper the Puyang Morning Daily revealed the tragic life of Hongbo grabbed attention nationwide.
According to the report, Hongbo spends almost every day playing in the hog pen behind his ramshackle home. His father, surnamed Liu, makes a living by collecting swill and taking passengers on his tricycle.
"Liu comes back home only during the wee hours of night and goes back to work early in the morning," the newspaper reported, adding that the family is too poor to send Hongbo to school.
Pictures of Hongbo sitting on ground with disheveled hair and a dirty face have gone viral on microblog Sina Weibo, evoking widespread anger and sympathy. Volunteers with the local Puyang Love Association (PYLA) came to help Hong after hearing of Hongbo's story, bringing food and helping him shave his head.
"When we finished shaving Hongbo's long hair, we found scars on his head," said Mr Zhang, a local volunteer.
"It just broke my heart," an emotional Zhang said. "He is a lovable kid, what has he done to deserve this?"
Local villagers said the scars are a result of child abuse from Hongbo's mother, who suffers from mental disorder. She was often seen grabbing his head and hitting him against a wall. She also keeps the child confined to their yard year round.
"We would interfere, but she just does not listen to us," a villager was quoted as saying.
Hongbo's father told local media that the family is extremely poor, and that his family members -his mother, wife and Hongbo- all depend on his earnings made via collecting swill in the county in the day, and taking passengers on his tricycle at night.
"We need at least 300 yuan (48 U.S. dollars) to pay electricity and other expenses each month, which is too much to afford," Liu said.
In an increasingly well-off society, with improving social welfare, Hongbo's situation pained many, while prompting an outcry for help. On Sina Weibo, a post about it has been forwarded more than 3,000 times as of Tuesday noon, drawing tons of comments that criticized the government and the parents for their irresponsibility.
"Hongbo probably does not know what cruelty is, yet the world is too damn cruel to him," read a comment by a netizen with the screenname "XiaoY_omuraisu". Others suggest that it is poverty that is at the root of the tragedy.
Having caught wind of the situation, the local government said it will take immediate measures to take care of Hongbo.
Volunteers with the PYLA said they have sent Hongbo to his aunt and have contacted a local hospital to help conduct a physical examination on him.
Experts attributed the sad situation to messy implementation of legal protection for minors, questioning China's basic social assistance system.
"I'm sure that local village officials knew about the poverty and child abuse problems in Hongbo's family in this small village. Why didn't they take any actions until media exposure?" Yang Hongmei, a law professor with Henan University of Economics and Law, asks.
Yang said officials should take responsibility if they are found to have failed their duties.
But is it just officials to blame? Many netizens question Hongbo's parents for their inability to raise children, demanding that the government deprive their custody of Hongbo.
Zheng Xikuan, an official with Qingfeng People's court, told Xinhua that if Hongbo's mother has a mental illness, her custody could be deprived, but she does not have to take responsibility in accordance with law.
Zhang Mingsuo, a sociology professor with Zhengzhou University, said that the case is a reflection that "our society has not done enough in protecting minors."
"This could be seen in the recent mass suicide case of four children in Guizhou, and Hongbo's case is only further proof," Zhang said.
Last month, four brothers and sisters, aged between 5 and 13, died in hospital after swallowing pesticide at home in Guizhou's Bijie City in southwest China.
Zhang said levels of legal awareness in rural China are still low, and that many people would not interfere in others' family affairs, leaving many tragedies unnoticed.
He added that China's social assistance system is still flawed, which is why similar tragedies still pop up despite improved welfare.
"We need to make much, much more efforts to improve our social assistance system," Zhang added. "It might take time and might not be that easy, but it will be a pain worth having, in the long run."