Perilous school commute goes viral in China | Follow the Hashtag | DW | 31.05.2016
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Perilous school commute goes viral in China

Striking images showing the dangerous trek of school children from a remote village in China have gone viral on social media. The government has promised to provide a safer ladder, while considering a long-term solution.

In the village of Atuleer in Sichuan Province of southwest China, pupils as young as six years old have to climb up a bamboo ladder 800 meters up a mountain, just to get back home from school.

The wooden ladder is the only means to access the remote community of 72 families and 15 children have to make the dangerous journey every two weeks from the boarding school to get home.

Dramatic photographs show the children wearing their colorful backpacks as they climb the precarious ladder secured to a sheer cliff face.

China Gefährliche Schulwege

The wooden ladder is the only means of access to the village of Atuleer in Sichuan province

Chen Jie, an award-winning Chinese photographer who traveled to the village to capture the images, talked about his impression of the villagers on his Weibo account.

"Their virtue deserves all our respect. They risk their lives to pick up guests coming to the village, no matter what they come for," Chen Jie said.

The original article, published by the Chinese-language newspaper Beijing Times last week, garnered more than 280,000 comments from Chinese readers. Many of the comments showed sympathy for the small children and the community. Others blamed the government for not putting enough resources to the development of the remote countryside.

Online criticism of the government

A lot of readers criticized the large amount of money the Chinese government spends on foreign investment, especially in infrastructure projects in Africa, while ignoring internal problems.

"Kids, your country has no money because all the money has been used to build houses, organizing sports events and for charity in Africa," said one reader.

"If we could use one percent of the money we spent on Venezuela, we could already build a road for them," another reader said.

Many other commenters also brought up criticism of officials' corruption.

"So much money has gone to corrupted officials, if only we could take some of it, that would be enough to build a safer ladder," said a reader.

The photos, on the other hand, highlight the wealth inequality in the second biggest economy in the world and the enormous gap of development between different parts of the country.

Even Chinese nationals are puzzled by the conditions the villagers live in. Some readers posted cynical and sarcastic questions, saying this is the reality of the so-called "Chinese dream" and that they thought China was rich.

"This is China. On the one hand, we have wealthy millionaires and corrupted officials. On the other, we have ordinary citizens living in poverty. When will we all be able live equally like people in Europe?" asked one reader.

Government response

Media attention and online reaction to the photos seemed to have had some positive impact. Last Friday, the Liangshan prefecture government that oversees the area promised to build a set of stairs as a stop-gap measure to ensure the safety of the villagers.

"The most important issue at hand is to solve the transport issue. That will allow us to make larger-scale plans about opening up the economy and looking for opportunities in tourism," Jikejingsong, the county's Communist Party secretary general, was quoted as saying in a news release.

The Global Times, the Chinese government's mouthpiece, also reported on Friday that a team of 50 officials from the county's transport, education and environmental protection departments have traveled to the area to assess safer alternatives.

Gefährliche Schulwege in China Sichuan

Children as small as six years old have to climb up a bamboo ladder of 800 meters to get home from school

But is a set of steel stairs a feasible solution? Many comments on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, suggested that the villagers should instead be relocated to a more accessible area and be provided with more job opportunities.

While the government's reaction might show the influential power of media, some users are also skeptical about the intention of the assessment.

"Now that the media has exposed the situation you are organizing this 'show' of assessment," a user named Xia Guang Yi Jiu said.

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