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A woman in China kills her four young children and herself. Did poverty push her to do it?

In the early evening of Aug. 26, Yang Gailan brought her four young children behind her small, mud-brick house in a northwestern Chinese village and hacked them to death with an ax. Afterward, she drank pesticide.

Before she died, she found her grandmother. “I was forced to,” she told the 73-year-old woman, according to Chinese news reports. “You don’t understand. I can’t make you understand.”

Yang’s husband committed suicide after learning what happened, according the China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper. He also drank pesticide.

This weekend, news of Yang’s murder-suicide spread on Chinese social networks. Many commentators cast Yang as a remarkably sympathetic figure, drawing widespread attention to the poverty, inequality and general air of hopelessness that pervades the country’s vast, economically stagnant countryside.

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China has made huge strides in addressing rural poverty: The country’s poverty rate fell from 88% in 1981 to 6.5% in 2012, according to the World Bank. Yet more than 70 million people in China still live below the poverty line, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and income inequality has soared. The richest 1% of China’s households own one-third of its wealth, according to a recent report by Peking University.

On Sunday, an article about the case titled “Ants in The Prosperous Era” went viral on WeChat, China’s most popular social network. “If there’s no incident like Yang Gailan killing her whole family, who would believe that these disadvantaged people and groups still exist in this prosperous era?” the author, a well-known commentator who posts under the name Ge Long, wrote.

“This case shocked urban Chinese people living in developed eastern cities,” Dang Guoying, an expert on rural development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-run Global Times newspaper. “Because most of us cannot imagine that millions of Chinese people still live in poverty in rural areas, especially in a country with the world’s second-largest economy.”

The story began to spread on WeChat and Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Although the scope of the response is difficult to quantify — WeChat does not reveal metrics, and Weibo is heavily censored — the proliferation of commentary and intensity of discussion suggest that the story struck a nerve.

Yang, 28, was quiet and withdrawn, according to the China Youth Daily. Even in her village of Agu Shan, population 300, she qualified as exceptionally poor. Pictures posted online suggest a grinding existence. Her bed was a concrete slab, her walls covered in newspaper, her ceiling broken and frayed. Her kitchen was a pile of blackened bricks. She spent her days working in the fields.

Rural China has emptied out in recent decades, as its young, able-bodied people leave home for better opportunities in the cities. Yang’s family was no exception. Her husband, Li Keying, worked in a nearby city, and sent about $500 home each month, according to a statement on the website of the Kangle County government, which oversees Agu Shan Village. Yang used the money to feed herself and her son and three daughters. The youngest was 3, the oldest 6.

But the added income had a catch. In 2013, the family received more than $400 a year in state welfare payments, according to the statement. In 2014, authorities determined that her family’s income surpassed $350 per person per month, raising her above the poverty line. They cut her benefits. “No one in Yang’s family complained,” the statement said.

Yet Yang couldn’t even read the official notice about the decision, according to Serious News, a WeChat-based investigative reporting outfit. Like her father and grandmother, she was illiterate.

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Doubts linger about the official narrative. The China Youth Daily cited an anonymous relative of Yang’s as saying that her husband earned only about $1,000 a year. Serious News insinuated that local officials may have misappropriated the funds.

A man who picked up the phone at the Kangle County government refused to answer questions. He suggested reading the online statement, and hung up before giving his name.

On Sept. 9, an investigative team from China’s powerful State Council launched an investigation into the case, according to the China Youth Daily.

Yet many social media users were divided about how much blame to place on society, and how much to place on Yang.

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“Nothing can justify a monster who kills her own kids — not even poverty, not even hopelessness,” said one post on Weibo. “If you ask her kids, ‘Do you want to be killed?’ the answer must be ‘No.’ ”

“I hope this is only due to poverty because at least it’s easy to give them more money,” said another. “But I’m afraid this is about unfairness, abuse and corruption, which is invisible in Chinese society and very difficult to correct.”

Yingzhi Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com

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