Young man’s death sheds light on life of China’s poor, and prompts an outpouring of sympathy – and questions

Qin Chen, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jan 30 2021 04:15 AM | Updated as of Jan 30 2021 07:19 AM

Young man’s death sheds light on life of China’s poor, and prompts an outpouring of sympathy – and questions 1
Lou Tit-Man, 73, writes a protest sign outside Mong Kok police station in Hong Kong, China September 23, 2019. Picture taken September 23, 2019. The sign reads "blood for blood". Tyrone Siu, Reuters/File

A man’s obituary for a young friend who, he says, died from poverty has painted a harrowing picture of life for China’s poor.

The 22-year-old video-game streamer known as Mocha, whose family name was Chen, died of diabetic complications in early January, his friend wrote in the online obituary, published on January 21.

However, the writer said he believed his friend’s descent into poverty, which left him unable to buy food, was the real reason for his death.

Last year, Chen had been diagnosed with sarcoma (a form of cancer) on his nose. He also had diabetes and liver problems. The sarcoma was treated, but the hospital marked the diabetes and liver damage as “untreated”.

“He skipped meals and struggled with chronic hunger while doing hard labour and getting paid only US$124 a month,” the obituary reads. When he lost his job, Chen’s situation became dire.

He didn’t come from a poor family. His mother told The Sichuan Daily, a newspaper in southwest China, that they owned a car. But the obituary said when the family were forced to cover medical expenses for the boy’s dying grandmother, they fell into debt.

Chen’s mother had raised him alone since divorcing his father when Chen was three years old. They had a strained relationship that became a toxic one when Chen dropped out of vocational school and started to bounce around the area.

He moved a three-hour drive away from his family to a county in the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in Sichuan, one of the poorest parts of China.

Two years after losing his job, in February 2020 Chen started to stream himself playing video games to earn money. His channel never took off, attracting just a few hundred followers. But it did mean he left behind a digital footprint – and a haunting diary of a man struggling to make enough to survive.

In June 2020, Chen wrote: “The small electric cooker bought from Pinduoduo arrived, hope this thing that cost US$3 is durable.” Then he posted another picture, of a pack of instant noodles and said: “Starving. Finally, I can have something to eat.”

On August 25, he wrote: “Tonight is a no-show. I don’t feel well, seeing ghost images and will rest.”

On November 8, he wrote: “I went into a coma for two hours today, not sure why. I will have a physical check tomorrow. Hopeful of resuming streaming soon.”

In one of his last posts, on December 29, Chen wrote: “I really want to eat strawberries, but can’t eat anything with this sickness … plus, they are too expensive.”

Twelve days later, on January 10, Chen was found dead in his rented apartment.

The obituary, and Chen’s digital footprint, prompted an avalanche of sympathy in China. People in their droves began following his channel on the video platform Bilibili. From having a few hundred followers when he was alive, he has some 1.65 million in death.

The 22-year-old’s fate was a catalyst for discussion online and offline about the brutal lives of China’s poor.

Heather Lee, 33, a public relations professional based in Beijing, said she found Chen’s death “profoundly sad” and an irony. Before learning about Chen’s life, Lee said she “wouldn’t be able to imagine a 20-something couldn’t afford to eat strawberries and ate instant noodles cooked with a US$3 cooker while suffering severe sickness”.

“We are living in the world’s second-largest economy, which claimed to have eradicated extreme poverty, and yet a young person died of chronic hunger. This is a tragedy for our entire society,” Lee said.

She added: “People like Chen are drifting outside of the mainstream. His death should push us to examine what to do about systematic poverty.”

The Chinese government declared victory in the battle against extreme poverty in line with the deadline it had set itself of 2020. China defines extreme poverty as living on less than US$350 a year, which the World Bank says is too low a threshold for an upper-middle-income country like China.

Two days after the obituary was posted, state media visited Chen’s family and published a series of reports showing that they were not living in “extreme poverty”. After that, the friend who had posted the obituary put up a statement saying it “didn’t comply with the state media’s description of Chen’s family”, and asked people to stop sharing it online.

However, this did nothing to stem the tide of comments about Chen’s death. Many people argued that, despite his family not being impoverished, it was clear he had been living in poverty at the time of his death.

Carmen Leung, a 23-year-old content marketer in the eastern city of Hangzhou, said: “Once again, the state media skilfully blurred the focal point. They want to use the storyline of ‘Chen’s family was OK’ to mitigate the systematic problems reflected by his case.”

Leung said Chen’s death resonated with people, regardless of the obituary, because of the gnawing helplessness they felt reading Chen’s online posts.

Other people saw his death as the result of long-term neglect on the part of his guardians. China relies heavily on individual families to care for minors, rather than building systematic social welfare organisations to help those who have become estranged from their families.

On Monday, three days after Chen’s death generated wide debate, the government issued a directive asking the Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Education to provide care and support to minors who lack proper parental care.

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