There were eight people in the simple two-room orphanage when the fire broke out at around 8 o'clock on the morning of January 4, Friday, four died at the scene, three died in hospital and one is still receiving treatment. All of those killed were orphans or abandoned children living in the orphanage in Lankao county, Henan province. Except one 20-year-old young man, six are children aged from seven months to about five years old.
Another 10 children of the orphanage were luckily not home at the time of the fire. The cause of the fire is not yet known and local officials have launched an investigation.
The orphanage was run by a local 48-year-old woman Yuan Lihai, who took on the task of fostering orphans and children abandoned by their genetic parents. Yuan Lihai made a living mainly by selling goods as a street vendor in front of the Lankao People's Hospital.
The Henan orphanage is illegal and has never registered in the county
According to official account, it was an illegal orphanage, not registered with the government. 18 children in total were taken into the care of Yuan Lihai, living out of the house that burned down and another one nearby. Many of the children were physically disabled or mentally retarded.
Shortly after the tragedy, police were deployed to cordon off the area and Yuan Lihai was taken away for investigation. And the other 10 children cared by Yuan, are now under government custody.
The next day, officials in Lankao county held a press conference, said Yuan's orphanage was illegal since it was not registered and she was financially lack of capability of caring so many children. The officials also admitted the government made mistakes. "There is a direct relationship between today's situation and the fact that some related government departments failed to enforce supervision and loosened management on purpose", deputy county governor Wu Changsheng said at the press conference as quoted by local news report. “They should shoulder responsibility, and that’s a loophole in our work.”
But so far, no officials were investigated or being held responsible for the death of the seven people. And state-owned newspapers of Lankao published news report hailing top officials of Lankao "paid great attention to the incident and made personal appearance to the spot to direct the rescue efforts".
Officials: Yuan Lihai adopts children to cheat the government out of the monthly 70 RMB of basic living allowances
In the meantime, the local newspapers began to circulate articles branding Yuan Lihai as cheating the government out of basic living allowances by adopting orphans, claiming she was human traffickers, and discussing what penalty Yuan would be submitted to.
Yuan Lihai has received about 4000 RMB of basic living allowances for her 18 adopted children from the government in the last season of 2012. Each child was given 70 RMB (12 USD) per month.
The basic living allowance is the largest welfare enjoyed by rural Chinese residents from their government. The monthly rate of basic living allowance varies from provinces to provinces, counting from 50 RMB to several hundred RMB.
To the allegation that Yuan was a human trafficker, Yuan angrily denied and cried in tears before reporters: “If I should be testified to be a human trafficker, I would be willing to be executed with gun!”
Not any legal or government-run orphanage exists in Lankao
The deaths have spotlighted China’s lack of government-run child services, which have often been left to private citizens with few resources and no legal authority.
According to a Tencent report
, there is not one official orphanage in Lankao and the official reason is that "Lankao is a nationally recognized poor county", but the county assembled 20 million RMB to build a grand new finance and taxation building in the past.
On China’s social media, the public have shown overwhelming sympathy toward Yuan Lihai and outrage against the local officials. Most of the netizens think Yuan Lihai did make mistake, but the government officials should take the major responsibility for the killing of the children. And the crime the government committed is not only their lax supervision, but that they do not spend a penny or energy in caring the disabled, abandoned poor children at all! Some netizens called for the resignation and arrest of the civil affairs bureau chief of Lankao county.
"Charity mother" has adopted more than 100 orphans and abandoned children
Also according to the Tencent report, the local woman Yuan Lihai, who has been long dubbed as "Charity mother" of Lankao, began to adopt abandoned children in 1986 and more than 100 orphans have once adopted by her. Right before the orphanage fire, 18 children and young adults were living with her.
The lankao government once regarded the title of "Charity mother" of Yuan Lihai as their positive image. Lankao police had sent several abandoned children they found to Yuan Lihai's orphanage.
But as soon as the tragedy happened, the Lankao government told public that Yuan Lihai's private orphanage was illegal since she had no capability of adopting so many children, and had never registered her orphanage with government. The statement of the Lankao government was immediately criticized by Chinese netizens as "trying to wash their hands in the case and shift the blame to Yuan Lihai".
It is estimated as many as 100,000 children are abandoned every year in China for being born as girl, out of wedlock, physically disabled, mentally retarded or simply because their genetic parents are not capable of fostering them financially. And a big part of the children are adopted by private orphanages, which have long been regarded as having filled the vacuum left by the porous children services provided by the Chinese government.