Eye-gouging attack casts spotlight on Chinese backwater

The brutal eye-gouging of a six-year-old boy shocked China and focused attention on one of the country's poorest areas, where farmers live in caves and school closures have uprooted families.

Schoolboy Guo Bin was drugged and his eyes gouged out in Fenxi county, a mountainous region far from China's prosperous coast, where government figures say farmers earn an average of 1,944 yuan ($317) a year and better-paid jobs in other sectors are scarce.

Guo's aunt Zhang Huiying committed suicide a few days after the attack by jumping into a well, before police named her as the chief suspect, saying DNA tests showed the boy's blood on her clothing.

But her family members, and several neighbours in the remote hillside village where she took her life claim she is innocent -- although they have no alternative explanation and the boy's own account has been confused and contradictory.

"I am completely sure she didn't do it... not one of the villagers can believe it," her brother Zhang Ruihua told AFP, adding that witnesses placed her elsewhere at the time of the attack.

While donations have flooded in to help Guo Bin, who has been offered artificial eyes by a Hong Kong doctor, the aunt's husband Guo Zhicheng trembled tearfully as he contemplated his future raising the couple's three daughters alone.

"The impact has been devastating," he said, sitting outside a row of run-down red-brick houses. Metres away, police had set up a cordon blocking off the area where his wife killed herself.

She worked in a chicken slaughterhouse and became the couple's main earner after he was injured in a workplace accident last year.

Though primary-level education is free, locals still pay fees for kindergarten and high school.

"The school fee problem will become so much bigger, I hardly earn anything myself," he said. "It's unfair, it's too unjust."

Most of Fenxi county is made up of ragged hills and dry earth, and unsuitable for arable farming, but patches of corn grown for animal feed line steep winding roads between small villages, dotted with cave homes carved directly into hillsides.

The county demonstrates huge challenges facing China's leadership, where despite decades of growth 99 million people still live on less than a dollar a day, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

"The economy hasn't developed here... we're a mountainous area and there are no resources, there aren't many jobs," said an elderly villager surnamed Guo -- no relation to Guo Bin -- who built his brick cave dwelling 30 years ago.

Furnishings inside Guo's house are sparse, with a simple stove which heats a large wok and a brick bed during the bitterly cold winter, a few chairs and wooden cabinets.

"If you're unemployed the government won't give you anything... farmers have to look after themselves," he said, adding that Guo Bin's own family had had "a lot of strife in their family and they were under heavy economic pressure".

According to villagers Guo Bin's parents had moved to the county town, where he was attacked, so that he could go to school there after the village's own establishment closed. The couple became dependent on family members for income after the boy's father suffered a workplace injury of his own, they said.

Along with other families in Fenxi the Guos have been caught up in an unprecedented wave of school closures in rural China over the past decade in the wake of a vast migration to the cities.

According to China's education ministry the number of rural schools fell from 440,284 in 2000 to 210,894 in 2010, a decline of 52.1 percent, state media said last year -- equivalent to more than two and a half schools every hour over the 10-year period.

Researchers say the closures have pushed up costs for families, and according to reports Guo Bin's aunt had quarreled with his parents over medical payments for the family's disabled patriarch.

China has rolled out a huge nationwide insurance scheme in rural areas in the past five years -- which it says now covers 99 percent of the countryside population -- but fees are still significant.

"Seventy percent is paid for (by the state)... you still need money to see a doctor, but we don't have money," said 45-year-old Fenxi farmer Zhang Lianghua, adding that she had not sought medical care for her father in law, who recently died of a brain tumour.

China's central government lists Fenxi as one of 592 national-level "poor counties" targeted for extra investment, and the county government website lists a variety of growth-boosting projects, among them becoming a world-class hub for walnut growing.

Some manufacturers have expanded production in poorer inland areas such as Shanxi province, which includes Fenxi, to avoid rising wages on the coast, including Taiwanese technology giant Foxconn.

But locals said government action had done little to alleviate their plight.

"People leave the village when their children go to school, and their houses collapse, and the land goes to waste," said Yao Jianfang, a middle-aged resident of the county.

"The (government) policies are good, but the money doesn't reach us, it's only words."