Guizhou Province – Guizhou province offers some of the most spectacular scenery in China.
Its distinctive Karst landscape brings Lord of the Rings to mind.
It’s easy to forget, therefore, that this is also one of the poorest parts of China and an area now synonymous with tragedy and despair.
The village of Cizhu is at the end of a long, winding, badly rutted track, barely wide enough for a car in parts.
For the past three weeks it has been off-limits to foreign journalists.
Al Jazeera was the first foreign news organisation to visit since four siblings, a brother and three sisters, committed suicide here on June 9.
It is a scarcely believable, heart-wrenching story that has triggered a national debate about poverty and child welfare in China.
The children – the youngest was five – were abandoned first by their mother and then the father, who police are still trying to find.
Both parents were impoverished migrant workers who left their children to toil in factories in faraway cities.
“Those four children, what they ate was worse than the food you give to pigs. Raw corn every day. No one took care of them,” says a neighbour, Yang Cheng Xi.
Those four children, what they ate was worse than the food you give to pigs. Raw corn every day. No one took care of them.
But she is vague about why no one here – herself, local government officials, the police or a teacher at the nearby school – raised the alarm sooner.
By the time that happened the children were dead. They had drunk pesticide and according to police had left a suicide note. Their deaths have highlighted the plight of China’s so-called “left-behind children”.
They are the spin-off from China’s estimated 250 million migrant workers, the unsung heroes of China’s economic boom. According to Beijing’s Mental Health Care Centre their offspring – some ten million of them – often go a full year without seeing their parents.
Cheng Xi isn’t surprised. Her two grandchildren last saw their father in January. He works in a factory in Shenzhen more than 1400km away. The eldest daughter Ma Gang Xi, 11, is old enough to understand why her father isn’t there to take care of them. But she still misses him.
“I want him to come back because when we have a parents’ meeting at the school I want him to be there,” Gang Xi said.
Her five-year-old sister, Ma Juan, was just a few months old when their mother fled. According to her grandmother, she fled to escape the poverty all around them.
“My daughter-in-law thought the land was too barren. It was too hard to grow crops. Life is very poor here. She thought life would better outside the village,” Cheng Xi said.
China is the world’s second largest economy. You wouldn’t know it in this part of south west China.
Guizhou Province is officially one of China’s poorest areas. According to the World Bank, a quarter of its 40 million population live below China’s official poverty line of just over $1 a day.
In September 2014 the bank approved a loan of $100m to the provincial government to help support rural development and poverty reduction. That financial help is yet to be felt in Cizhu.
“The local government didn’t help us at all,” says Cheng Xi, spitting out the words.
‘Minders’ follow every move
Poverty is a sensitive issue in China, which is why local government officials were soon onto us, following our every move. At one stage there were ten of them sitting in the lobby of our hotel. They were worried because President Xi Jinping had been in this area just a few days earlier.
In the model village of Huamao he told people that poverty “is nothing to fear”.
The official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying: “A good life is created with one’s own hands, so poverty is nothing to fear. If we have determination and confidence.”
Our official “minders” allowed us to visit a school in the village of Lushu. It has 93 students. Twenty per cent of them live most of the year without seeing one or both parents. Before we able to talk to the teacher, Gao Bi, our minders first spoke to her. So her answer was filtered.
“It’s not a big problem for the children because most of them can talk to their parents by phone once a week. In the worst case it’s once a week,” Gao Bi said.
One of the latest additions to the regions’ migrant worker exodus was a former colleague of Ms Gao’s. He’s now working on a construction side in Guangdong Province.
The parents of Yang Guang Mei have also left the village in Shenzhen. Her guardian is now her 18-year-old brother. The local government had selected her for us to talk to and she emerged from the smartest house in the village. We were told that brother and sister lived there.
But whatever the case, Yang was nervous, which was hardly surprising given our minders were standing beside her. After my first question, she simply froze. Yang had forgotten her rehearsed lines. I ended the interview abruptly. A crude propaganda strategy – using a 12-year-old-child – had failed.
Despite its poverty, some parts of Guizhou are undergoing a rapid transformation.
The city of Bijie embodies that change. There are luxury car dealerships, a new five-star hotel and, of course, the ubiquitous shopping mall. Everywhere you look there are new apartment blocks. As for the number of building sites, I simply lost count.
On the outskirts of the city, a new industrial park is taking shape called Sunshine City. There are giant billboards with urgent messages, including one that says: “Build up Confidence to Battle Poverty.”
The factories now being built could, in theory, one day provide the jobs needed to help keep families together.
The deaths of four young children last month are a reminder of what such investment can’t come soon enough.