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Liu Hongbo smiles at his first taste of prawn crackers given to him by a volunteer. The 7-year-old is the size of a normal 4-year-old due to malnutrition and years of neglect. Photographs of him sitting in the back of his father’s truck along with a pig went viral online and prompted immediate action by local volunteers and government officials. He is now being cared for by an aunt. — CFP AT 7 years old , Liu Hongbo (not his real name) can barely speak a word.

The boy from Qingfeng County in 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 is said to frequently abuse him.
Liu Hongbo in his father's tricycle with a pig. Liu Hongbo in his father's tricycle with a pig. Liu Hongbo in his father's tricycle with a pig. Liu Hongbo in his father's tricycle with a pig. The pigsty where Liu Hongbo lived. Liu Hongbo's head was strewn with scars caused by his mother's beating. Volunteers helped Liu Hongbo clean his face.
He has no friends, no proper food and nobody to properly care for him. His only companions are the pigs kept by his father.

On Monday, a report in Henan’s local newspaper, the Puyang Morning Daily, on the tragic life of Hongbo grabbed attention nationwide.

It said that Hongbo spent almost every day playing in the pig pen behind his ramshackle home.

Pictures of Hongbo sitting on the ground with disheveled hair and a dirty face went viral on microblog Sina Weibo , evoking widespread anger and sympathy.

After hearing of his plight, volunteers from the local Puyang Love Association brought Hongbo food.

When they cut his long, matted hair they found scars on his head.

“It just broke my heart,” said a volunteer surnamed Zhang. “He is a lovable kid, what has he done to deserve this?”

Villager Liu Xuefang said the scars were caused by Hongbo’s mentally ill mother. He said she was often seen grabbing his head and hitting him against a wall. She also kept the child confined to the yard all year round.

Villagers said that Hongbo was the second child of five. His older brother was taken away by an aunt shortly after his birth while three younger children had died in infancy.

Wan Suxiang , a villager, said the boy got frostbite from being left outside during the winter and suffered many infections. Villagers tried to help by giving him food and clothes but he was locked in the yard.

His father, Liu Zhenxue, 46, makes a meagre living by collecting swill and taking passengers on his tricycle at night.

Wan said the family ate food from the swill the father collected to feed the pigs and that sometimes villagers would break into the yard to let Hongbo out to play.

Another villager told the newspaper: “We would interfere , but she just does not listen to us,” referring to the mother.

Hongbo’s father told reporters that the family was extremely poor, and that his mother, his wife and Hongbo relied on the little he earned from collecting swill and using his tricycle as an illegal taxi.

“We need at least 300 yuan (US$48) 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. On Sina Weibo, a post about it had been forwarded more than 3,600 times as of yesterday , drawing many comments that criticized the government and the parents.

“Hongbo probably does not know what cruelty is, yet the world is too damn cruel to him,” was one comment.

Having learned of the situation, the local government said it would take immediate measures to take care of Hongbo, providing him with 500 yuan a month till he reaches the age of 18 , China News Agency reported yesterday.

Volunteers with the PYLA said they had now sent Hongbo to his aunt and had contacted a local hospital to examine him.

Experts attributed the situation to messy implementation of legal protection for minors, and problems with China’s 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 action until media exposure?” asked Yang Hongmei, a law professor with Henan University of Economics and Law.

Zhang Mingsuo, a sociology professor at Zhengzhou University, said the case was 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, a brother and his three sisters, aged between 5 and 13, died after swallowing pesticide at their home in southwest China.

Zhang said levels of legal awareness in rural China are still low , and many people would not interfere in others’ affairs, leaving many tragedies unnoticed.

He added that China’s social assistance system is flawed, which is why there are similar tragedies despite improved welfare.

“We need to make much, much more efforts to improve our social assistance system,” Zhang said. “It might take time and might not be that easy , but it will be a pain worth having, in the long run.”

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