BEIJING -- A former journalist and his wife have been detained by security officers in China after he wrote online last week about five boys in Guizhou Province who died in a trash bin after taking shelter there from the cold, according to a lawyer and a friend of the ex-journalist.
The lawyer, Li Fangping, said in a telephone interview that the ex-journalist, Li Yuanlong, who is not related to the lawyer, was picked up by security officers on Wednesday. The men spoke by telephone while Mr. Li was being driven along a highway to a "resort" in Guizhou in south-central China, the lawyer said on Thursday. A friend of Mr. Li who edits an online publication said Mr. Li's wife had been taken too.
Mr. Li, 52, had been a reporter for Bijie Daily, the main newspaper in the city of Bijie, for eight years, but was imprisoned in 2005 for two years because he had written too many "negative" stories about Bijie, the lawyer said. He has been unemployed since his release from prison, the lawyer added.
Late last week, Mr. Li posted photographs and wrote about the deaths in Bijie of the five boys, who were all related and ranged in age from 9 to 13. The bodies were discovered on Nov. 16 in a rolling trash bin. The local police said the boys appeared to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning after they started a fire with charcoal inside the bin to warm themselves. At least four of the boys had dropped out of school, according to official news reports.
Mr. Li's posts ignited outrage on the Internet in China. Online users asked scathing questions about how the local government, teachers, family members and society in general could have allowed the boys to end up in such a predicament. Official news organizations, including Xinhua, the state news agency, ran reports on the deaths.
For many Chinese, the plight of the dead children evoked comparisons to the tale of "The Little Match Girl," a Hans Christian Andersen story of a girl ignored by the rich who froze to death after trying to warm herself with a lighted match. The story was commonly assigned in Chinese schools for many years.
The boys' parents were migrant workers who had gone off to boom cities seeking jobs, and the boys were being raised in haphazard conditions typical of "left-behind children," the news reports said. It is common across China for migrant workers to leave children in the care of family members, often grandparents, in their hometowns. Because of a strict residency registration system across China, migrant workers cannot get proper social benefits in the cities in which they work, and their children are often barred from schooling, which gives parents little incentive to bring their children with them.
The lawyer said local officials knew that Mr. Li has more information on the plight of children in Bijie, and so the officials wanted to detain him to keep him away from other reporters. He added that Mr. Li had been documenting the problems faced by children for years.
A person answering the telephone at an office of the Bijie government said the office had no information about Mr. Li. The Web site of the city government has some information on the five dead boys and has a post vowing to protect children and to patrol trash bins. The government also said it would set up a hot line for reporting on cases of street children and send officials to schools to ensure that children are enrolled and attending classes.
Mr. Li's posts last week came at a particularly delicate time for the Communist Party, which announced a new leadership lineup on Nov. 15. Party leaders have stressed the need to bridge the country's growing income gap, but many officials still support a growth-at-all-costs strategy.
Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that two school principals and four local officials were fired Monday night for failing to ensure the welfare of the boys in Bijie. Two other officials were suspended from their jobs.
The boys were identified as Tao Zhongjing, 12; Tao Zhonghong, 11; Tao Zhonglin, 13; Tao Chong, 12; and Tao Bo, 9.
Mia Li contributed research.
Correction: November 23, 2012, Friday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the author of "The Little Match Girl." He is Hans Christian Andersen, not Anderson.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.