Early summer, Bai Town.
A black car drove into the downtown area, took a turn, and headed straight towards Phoenix Fair on the west side. Despite its government-issued license plate, there was nothing conspicuous about the car. The driver, however, had a familiar face. It was none other than Zhang Hongru, the liaison commissioner himself.
Needless to say, the passenger in the back seat could only be Gu Yu.
He left for Tianzhu Mountain in April and did not return until the end of May. The job took him as long as forty days. Being as thorough a person as Zhang Hongru was, adding to the fact that he was led to know of Gu Yu's great contribution in Tianzhu, Zhang dared not take the fellow lightly and came to pick Gu Yu up himself.
The car threaded through the old town, passing dusty, dilapidated buildings and the normal happy people whose hearts were numbed by all the failed struggles.
Gu Yu's eyes flickered at the streets they were passing through. The car was just off Hongmei 1 Street and Phoenix Fair was not far ahead. Between the street and the fair was an empty open space.
This vacant lot had been there forever and was a rotten legacy left behind by a series of developers and former government officials. No one had found themselves entitled enough to do something about it and the place had been left unattended all these years.
However, Gu Yu saw that the place had been tidied up recently. Not only was it cleaned, makeshift houses were also set up. A hundred or so white-walled and blue-roofed houses were neatly arranged, forming a little village.
Some doors were shut—the owners seemed to be out. Some of those with open doors had old people sitting at the porch, enjoying the warm sunlit hours. A young woman was washing clothes in a big wash-tub in front of her house with a three or four year old howling beside her. The woman ignored the child completely as she scrubbed the clothes in a robotic motion.
"Pull over!" Gu Yu suddenly said.
Bewildered, Zhang Hongru slowly stopped the car by the side of the road.
"Are these residents of Grass River Mouth?" Gu Yu asked.
"Yup, only a couple of hundred people are settled here; the majority was relocated to the north and south part of the city and the subordinate towns and villages. The Shengtian government has drawn up a plan to build a few residential areas similar to those relocation ones. There were a little over sixty thousand residents in Grass River Mouth and each household was given a resettlement fee based on the floor space, area of their lands, and size of the household. The house they purchase in the future will be at a discount price, so it's a de facto resettlement project."
"What about their jobs?" Gu Yu asked another question.
Shaking his head, Zhang Hongru sounded worried. "Even college graduates are unemployed nowadays and the state is having a hard time solving that problem. Bai Town is so small that there are only a handful of job opportunities it can provide. The younger and stronger ones have all gone out to find jobs elsewhere, leaving behind their elderlies and children. Really, what choice do they have?"
Gu Yu was silent for a moment before he reminded Zhang, "Although the peach flower miasma is an anomaly brought by the recovery of the spiritual essence, we cannot guarantee that it won't happen again. It won't be too much of a problem if it is created in natural areas, but if it shows up near a residential area, incident similar to this one is bound to happen."
"We've considered all those possibilities, but there's only so much we can do at this stage."
Zhang Hongru looked out of the window and sighed. "We cannot predict where it will show up next time and all we can do is to react to it passively. It's the peach flower miasma this time, and who knows what will come next? To tell you the truth, those above have considered burning that island to the ground. It was not carried out because we were afraid there would be subsequent problems. Plus, even if we choose to set the fire, it would make no difference to these people; they would still be forced to leave."
Silence fell in the car as both men were overwhelmed with mixed feelings.
Members of the society could be divided into different groups by different criteria and such groups all had their specific historical backgrounds.
Take left-behind children 2 as an example. The total number of left-behind children in the country had exceeded 61 million, of which 79.9% were raised by their maternal or paternal grandparents, 13% by other relatives or friends, and 7.3% were undetermined or left behind without any guardian.
Huge gaps existed in the economic development between different regions and there was sharp contradiction in rural areas between the increasing population and decreasing farmland. The surplus labor became migrant workers, who could not take their children along due to various reasons such as point based enrolment scheme, household registration system, etc., which gave rise to the problem of left-behind children.
What was happening now was just another example of such issues. With increasing probability of such incidents, a new group would be formed sooner or later—the anomaly migrants.
"You little bastard, where do you think you're going? Your dad and mom have dumped you, no wonder you're already such a little shit!"
"Sob… I didn't steal you things, I didn't… sob…"
Just then, there was a commotion in the street and when Gu Yu turned to look, he saw a little girl running out of a convenient store on Hongmei Street with a man chasing after her.
The girl was about six or seven and her face was pale with fear. She ran to the clothes-washing woman, still sobbing.
"Xiao He, what's wrong?" The woman finally gave a reaction and raised her head in question.
"Auntie, I, I didn't steal his thing… sob…"
The wailing girl was frightened and could not explain herself clearly. The man caught up with her and yelled, "Are you her parent? What have you been teaching her? She's becoming a thief already!"
"Brother, she's not my kid. I'm just a neighbor. Her grandpa asked me to keep an eye on her." The woman got heated at the accusation.
"Whatever. She took my stuff and I'm holding you accountable, or I'm calling the police!"
"Brother, I really am not her parent!" The threat of calling the police flustered the woman even more, who started waving her hands anxiously.
By now, other neighbors had gathered around and murmured among themselves.
"Xiao He is such a nice kid, she'll never steal from others."
"Exactly. I say it was his own fault. Losing something carelessly and he's blaming the little one."
"And that grandpa of hers, nothing would have happened if he had been taking care of his own granddaughter."
Everyone was talking at the same time, but no one dared stand out and reason with the man. All young adults were away and the neighborhood was filled with elderlies, children, and those without a family. More importantly, in their minds, they still felt they were under someone else's roof—the shop owner was a local.
Seeing their reaction, the man grew even more arrogant and berated, "I don't care which one of you is her parent. Pay me back my money, or I'm calling the…"
"Call the police, then!"
He was interrupted before he could finish his sentence. The crowd turned their heads in unison and saw two young men approach.
One of them said, "Dude, I see you've got video surveillance outside your store. That'll make things much easier. The police can play the tape and everything'll be clear. There's no need for yelling."
"W-who are you?"
The man lowered his voice at the manner of the speaker and the latter's car parked not far away.
"Who I am is irrelevant. Aren't you calling the police? Here, let me help."
With that, Zhang Hongru took out his phone, as if ready to dial the number. The man backed off immediately and stopped him hastily. "Don't! I guess I might be wrong. We wouldn't want the police come all the way here for nothing. I'll go back and check it again. Let me check it again."
"Are you sure?"
"Sure, sure! Don't trouble them."
The man left promptly after that without even trying to give some tough talk.
Gu Yu watched it from behind. Instantly, he recognized three distinctive social strata.
Being the migrant, the little girl was at the bottom; the man was a local self-employed businessman and somewhere in the middle; Zhang Hongru had "power" written all over him the moment he entered the scene.
The big fish fed on the small fish, who fed on the shrimps in turn; it was such an appropriate expression.
With the problem solved, the onlooking neighbors went back to their own business. Seeing that the little girl was still weeping, Gu Yu crouched down and wiped her tears away, revealing a small face smudged with dirt.
His hand froze in mid-air, for he had seen her before. She was that little girl running after the cat and almost stumbling into the miasma the other day.
Zhang Hongru also recognized her and thought it quite a coincidence. He smiled at the girl. "Hi, little one, what's your name?"
"I'm, I'm He He."
"Where's your grandpa?"
"He went out. He told me to stay with auntie."
"When is he coming back?"
"I don't know."
"Have you eaten?"
"No. I, I really didn't steal his thing. I only stood outside and looked."
The kindness of the two men helped He He to gradually stop crying, but she was adamant in denying the accusation. The two men were trying to learn more about the situation here, so they simply took her to a nearby dumpling restaurant for lunch.
The little girl was starving. She downed half a kilo of dumplings on her own and was a bit shy afterwards with her plump little stomach.
The three then waited together at her home. It was not until that evening when the grandfather returned.
After being told the whole story, the old man thanked them repeatedly. Zhang Hongru then asked, "Uncle, where have you been, leaving your granddaughter behind like this?"
"I was at the municipal government."
Zhang Hongru winced. "What were you doing there?"
The question brought an expected anger out of the old man as he replied, "I went to reason with them! I was perfectly fine living on the island. Why did they force me to move here?"
"Well, didn't they tell you about the toxic gas? It was a dangerous substance. They had to do it for safety reasons." Zhong Hongru was playing the role of an innocent onlooker.
"Yes, I know that! But it's been over a month now and no one told us anything. When can I move back?"
The old man grew angrier as he went on. "I waited there for a whole day and saw no one. They then tried to dismiss me with a petty official when I pressed hard. I just want to know exactly what that thing is? With all those men in the government, why can't they fix it?"
Zhang Hongru pondered briefly and continued his acting. "Uncle, I'm going to be frank with you, please don't be offended. I heard the government had given you quite a large resettlement allowance. Wouldn't it be nice to get a place in the city, where your children can take care of you and your granddaughter can go to school?"
"Damn the resettlement allowance! Damn the care!"
The old man fumed abruptly, his face scarlet with rage. "Her dad divorced a long time ago and has gone out for work. I raised the kid single-handedly. It was only when I wrote to him a while ago that he finally came back. He saw the money and said something about needing capital for his business… he's not my son!"
He could not go on. One could easily perceive how aggrieved he was. When he spoke again, however, it was a whimpering sort of voice. His wrinkled face crumpled up like a piece of shrivelled, dead bark.
"I have nothing left. If not for the child, I'd just drown myself in the river. I'll return to Grass River Mouth, even if as a corpse!"TL/N: meaning "red plum blossoms" TL/N: Left-behind children in China is the phenomenon of parents from the country's rural areas leaving their children when they move to urban areas to seek work. Children are left in the care of relatives such as grandparents, family friends or others.