Chinese underclass growing, neglected

Death of pregnant migrant stirs outrage

December 25, 2007|By Ching-Ching Ni | Ching-Ching Ni,Los Angeles Times

Beijing -- They might have had a Christmas baby.

But things went terribly wrong that day in late November.

It started with a bad cough. Li Liyun, a 22-year-old migrant worker, tried to ignore it because she couldn't afford medicine. She certainly couldn't afford a prenatal checkup. She and her partner, Xiao Zhijun, were so broke, sometimes they went for three days without food before refilling with a bowl of rice and cabbage soup.

When Li had trouble breathing, Xiao rushed her to a clinic, which transferred her to a hospital nearby. There doctors said Li was suffering from severe pneumonia and that the only way to save her and her unborn child was to perform an emergency cesarean. But Xiao refused to sign the release form, believing the procedure was unnecessary and that the doctors only wanted to charge him for an expensive operation.

About five hours after arriving at the hospital, both mother and child were dead.

The tragedy has sparked widespread outrage in China, casting new light on the plight of an underclass that is swelling even as this nation undergoes a massive economic expansion. The growing underclass has a dearth of social services available.

But it also revealed how distrust, fear and superstition can prove deadly in the world's most populous nation.

"The bigger picture behind this tragedy is a society that is seriously lacking in mutual trust and compassion," said Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing lawyer who is not involved in the case.

Xiao says Li was not yet full term and that the hospital gave her drugs that caused her to go into premature labor so they could swindle him.

"They are murderers who are trying to pin the killing on me," Xiao said. "My only fault is that I have no money."

Lacking professional medical care, the couple had depended on some dubious counsel. A street vendor, for instance, had told Xiao that his baby wasn't due until the end of December. A fortune teller had predicted an untimely end for Li and the child. Doctors whom he distrusted were forcing him to allow them to cut her open. His mind was a blur when he heard, first, that the fetal heart had given out. Then that the mother had stopped breathing.

"We offered to foot the $1,300 bill to save two lives," said He Weishan, a man who was visiting the hospital with his pregnant wife. "He didn't want the money. He just froze. He really didn't believe his wife was ready for labor."

Nearly one out of three people in the Chinese capital of 17 million belongs to the country's floating population, according to state media. They are migrants like Li and Xiao who have left impoverished rural roots in search of a better life in the cities. More often, what awaits them are setbacks and disappointments.

Three years ago, Li was so disheartened she had wanted to commit suicide. That's how Xiao met her.

He was a laid-off factory worker walking across a bridge in Beijing when he saw a young woman about to jump.

"She was climbing over the railing. I ran up and grabbed her," Xiao recalled. "I told her, `You are so young. The road ahead is still long. Whatever is troubling you, I will help you get through it.'"

His words touched her deeply. They became friends and then fell in love.

Despite their age difference - she was 19 and he 31 when they met - they had much in common. Both grew up in the Chinese heartland. Both felt like outcasts, and harbored big dreams: She wanted to be an actress, and he aspired to become a government official.

"My daughter loved to sing and dance; she spent one year at a provincial film school that cost almost $2,000, an astronomical figure for a family like ours," said her schoolteacher father, Li Xuguang, now in Beijing to pursue legal action against the hospital.

"The last time we spoke was the morning before she died," said her mother, Li Xiaoe, who broke down sobbing at the sight of her daughter's photographs. "She told me, `Mama, I have a cold.' I told her to get it looked at. She said she would."

Her daughter hadn't told her she was pregnant.

"I am sure she wanted to come home, but she was afraid of telling us the truth," her mother said.

Xiao said they had wanted to get married but under Chinese law they had to return to their home province to get official permission. They didn't have money for the trip and worried their families would not accept their union.

They drifted from city to city, job to job, sleeping in shanties, on the street, on hospital benches. After venturing to Beijing, Xiao worked as a mover, security guard and shoe store worker. But the pay was so low, they were even evicted from their hole-in-the-wall rental.

To get a roof over their heads before the baby came, Xiao tried reaching out to welfare agencies, emergency shelters and maternity wards.

"We live in a heartless world," said Xiao, his head buried in his hands and his words barely audible.

Finally, a restaurant hired them to wash dishes for $93 a month, plus room and board. But he thinks that made things worse. She wouldn't have gotten so sick if we hadn't taken that job, he said, choking up. The water was so cold. It was wet everywhere.

Two weeks later, they were in the hospital with $13 in his pocket, facing a life-or-death crisis. By then, it was hard for him to trust anyone. Now, it's impossible.

"She's gone," Xiao mumbled, tears dripping onto the cold floor as he faced the prospect of a life alone without the woman he loved and his child. "I just know it was a son."

Ching-Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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