BEIJING — On the day China unveiled its new leadership in Beijing with promises of a better life for all, five runaway boys seeking shelter and warmth died in a garbage bin in the south.
The boys were all brothers or cousins aged 9 to 13. Surnamed Tao, they were the sons of three brothers -- two of whom are migrant workers with jobs far from home — and most of them lived largely unsupervised in the care of their blind grandmother.
They had been missing for more than a week when they lit a fire to stay warm on a cold, damp night Nov. 15 in the city of Bijie and died from carbon monoxide poisoning, police say.
As details of the tragedy emerged this week, it touched off the country's latest soul-searching about social responsibility.
It renewed concern over the "left-behind" rural children who are often left with grandparents while parents seek work in thriving coastal cities, and the failure of the country's social services to adequately care for them.
"Though you departed from us in a garbage bin, you are not garbage," children's book author Zheng Yuanjie wrote in his microblog, adding that the fault lies with "adults who failed their responsibilities."
Questions have been raised about how the children — found about 15 miles from their home village of Caqiangyan — could have gone missing for 10 days without more of an effort launched to find them.
Six local officials, including two school principals, were sacked Tuesday.
"We have failed in our management work," said Tang Guangxing, a spokesman for Bijie city, where the boys' bodies were found Friday. "Our work was not attentive enough."
State media outlets, giving the deaths broad coverage, have joined in the hand-wringing.
"This is a shame that cannot be washed away by a civilized society," the Beijing Youth Daily wrote in an editorial this week.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the boys had poor grades at school and essentially had dropped out of their classes. Xinhua faulted China's education system for putting too much stress on academic excellence at the expense of caring for less successful students.
"Please do not forget the mission of compulsory education. Please spread love and responsibility like sunshine," Xinhua wrote in an editorial. "This is also a tragedy of 'left-behind children,' which is a sign of the time and requires introspection from family, society and government."
Many critics in China have fretted over decaying public morality as the country's economy rapidly grows and its people enjoy unprecedented wealth. A similar outcry erupted last year, when a toddler in Guangzhou was run over by two vehicles and then ignored by at least 18 passers-by.
The latest incident has focused concern on the plight of families in impoverished rural areas. An estimated 58 million children countrywide lack sufficient supervision or stay in the care of grandparents when their parents seek work in China's booming cities.
Some details of the boys' home life remain unclear. Their relatives lack telephones and could not be contacted, though some were quoted by Chinese media outlets who sent journalists to the extremely poor, mountainous region of mud huts where farmers earn about $475 a year.