The deaths of four impoverished siblings who reportedly drank pesticide after being abandoned by their parents have shocked China and opened up a new debate over the plight of millions of so-called “left-behind” children.
The four children – one boy and three sisters aged between five and 13 – were found dead on Tuesday in the city of Bijie in Guizhou province, according to China’s state news agency Xinhua.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has ordered an investigation after reports suggested the children "committed suicide" by drinking pesticide.
The premier is "extremely concerned," a government statement stated on Friday, and said officials will be "held accountable" if they are found to have neglected their duties during the investigation.
"This tragedy cannot happen again," it said.
Millions of workers are forced to leave their families to find work in rural parts of China, leaving their children behind to the care of relatives.
According to media reports the children's mother abandoned them a while ago and their father went to another province for work, sending them a small amount of money monthly. But they had to rely on corn in their land to feed themselves.
Xinhua reported that the children were victims of domestic violence in previous years and the boy had attempted to commit suicide before, citing a relative.
Three years ago, five "left behind" children died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the same province after lighting a fire to get warm in a rubbish bin where they been sleeping.
An estimated 60 million "left behind" children live in China, according to experts, and nearly 50 percent of them suffer from depression and anxiety.