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Two boys outside a school in Guizhou, January 15, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Nov. 15, 2012, was a dramatic day in China. In the morning, just before noon, Xi Jinping led a line of seven men down the red carpet in the Great Hall of the People. Together they were introduced as the ruling Communist Party's new Standing Committee of the Politburo, the board of directors of the world's risen superpower.

That night, in the city of Bijie, 2,380 kilometres southwest of Beijing, in China's impoverished Guizhou province, five boys between the ages of nine and 13 finished a day of playing street soccer and begging outside a local university. They needed a place to sleep. Their parents, it was later revealed, were migrant workers gone to toil in China's coastal factories.

Though separated from their children, they were likely hoping to make enough money to give their kids a better education, and a better chance in life, than they had.

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On preceding nights, the boys had slept in a makeshift tent they had made from plastic tarps and plywood scavenged from a nearby construction site. But Nov. 15 was different, the coldest night so far that fall, as the temperature fell to just 6 C.

The five boys – Zhonglin, Zhongjing, Chong, Zhonghong and Bo, all cousins from the Tao family – figured that a nearby dumpster would be the warmest of their meagre options. They decided to generate extra heat by making a fire. All five suffocated.

Their deaths shook China, throwing a spotlight on the plight of "left-behind children" – the offspring of the country's army of migrant workers.

China's economic rise has been fuelled by some 250 million men and women from the vast countryside who leave home to take jobs in the factories of the country's booming east coast. State media estimates that about 58 million left-behind children remain in rural areas, accounting for more than a quarter of all children from that background.

Despite its poverty, residents from the five boys' province say Guizhou has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past decade, thanks to massive government investment that has built roads connecting rural villages to cities for the first time. Rural incomes have risen, and many towns now have electricity and running water for the first time. The deaths in Bijie are a reminder, however, of how far China's countryside and smaller cities still lag behind the fast-developing east coast.

The Tao boys were left in the care of an impoverished uncle while their own parents went to the commercial hub of Shenzhen, about 1,400 kilometres away, looking for work. Many other children of migrant workers are left in the care of elderly grandparents or even neighbours.

Some in China compared the boys' sad fate to the Little Match Girl of Hans Christian Andersen's 19th-century fairy tale; she spends her last hours alone on the streets, lighting matches to stay warm.

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But this was no fairy tale. Zhao Yongzhu, director of the Guizhou office of Oxfam Hong Kong, says that while firm statistics are hard to come by, at least 30 per cent of all children in rural parts of Guizhou province are being raised in the absence of one parent, often both.

"They feel isolated, lonely. They don't like to tell people what they're thinking and they're not very self-confident. They don't trust people very much," Mr. Zhao said. Oxfam is preparing a new program targeted specifically at helping such children.

But while the shocking tale helped focus efforts on helping others in similar situations, the Bijie-based independent journalist who revealed the tale has been punished for drawing attention to what some see as an embarrassing side effect of China's rapid development.

Li Yuanlong, who posted two online reports about the case in November that quickly became the most-discussed news stories in China, was grabbed by state security officers shortly afterward and driven to the airport in the provincial capital of Guiyang. From there he was flown to a forced "vacation" on the island of Hainan, all to stop him writing further reports.

He's back in Bijie now but under constant surveillance. "The night before yesterday, I found a big camera installed facing the gate of my building. None of the neighbouring gates have one, so it must be aimed at me," he told The Globe and Mail by telephone this week. "I'm speaking to you now with the knowledge they are listening."

Mr. Li says he's unable to find work right now because all the local media know they shouldn't hire him. He's also been denied a passport that he applied for so that he could go visit his son, who is studying in the United States.

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Despite it all, he's proud that his efforts have helped bring attention – and aid – to the left-behind children of Guizhou. "I will keep on witnessing and being concerned with this issue in any way that I can," he vowed.

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