'Snowflake Boy:' Is going viral the only way to reduce poverty?

Wang Fuman, 8, walked 4.5 kilometers to school in rural Yunnan Province and arrived with his hair and eyebrows covered in ice. His story went viral, but why?
'Snowflake Boy:' Is going viral the only way to reduce poverty?

Still wearing sandals at this time of year, students at a rual primary school in Changning County, Yunnan Province, are given winter outfits by the local poverty alleviation office.

I woke up yesterday a little earlier than usual because my electric blanket was a bit too hot. In the West we would hashtag this non-issue #firstworldproblems online — an ironic moment of self-realization that actually life is pretty good if that’s all you need to worry about. I don’t live in a “first world country” anymore, although you wouldn’t realize that during my day-to-day life here in Shanghai.

For all intents and purposes, Shanghai is much, much more developed than my home country in many ways. Even though New Zealand is a so-called “developed” country, you wouldn’t think that with some of the problems you will run into. If you go on a road trip, for example, you’re likely to experience vast swathes of no cellphone reception.

In Shanghai I can jump on the Metro and get anywhere in this huge city quite quickly. I can log into one of my takeout apps and have hot food delivered to my door in no time at all. I can jump in the shower and have a long, hot soak when I feel a little cold from walking 10 minutes home from the Metro station and then jump in bed and watch videos on Bilibili.

But Shanghai is not the norm — not by a long shot. In fact, the vast majority of this massive country is far from the level of development Shanghai enjoys, with annual income in eastern coastal cities and Beijing up to two times higher than the national average. Head inland and the situation changes dramatically. Head further west and the situation gets even more stark.

This uneven development is exactly the thing President Xi Jinping said he will work on during the 19th CPC National Congress late last year. He said the government will work to eliminate rural poverty by 2020 — an ambitious goal to say the least. But based on the hundreds of millions already lifted from poverty in China over the last few decades, I have no reason to doubt he will succeed.

According to the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, China's poverty line is slightly higher than US$1.9 per day, which is the standard set by the World Bank for developing countries.

Xi’s promise was, of course, welcomed by most, who are eager to see prosperity and a higher standard of living for people all across this huge country. But for many of us, especially those living in these prosperous oases like Shanghai, that poverty was all but an idea.

'Snowflake Boy:' Is going viral the only way to reduce poverty?

Wang Fuman, 8, the "Snowflake Boy"

'Snowflake Boy:' Is going viral the only way to reduce poverty?

The little boy's hands suffer from frostbite.

That’s until 8-year-old Wang Fuman walked 4.5 kilometers to school in rural Zhaotong, Yunnan Province, and arrived with his hair and eyebrows covered in ice. His classmates laughed and his principal took a picture and posted it online.

Netizens called him “Snowflake Boy,” and they were moved by the millions as the story and that photo went viral.

People donated money, either to schools or aid organizations. Others demanded action.

The education bureau where Snowflake Boy lives — no doubt with faces redder than little Wang’s after his snowy trek — vowed to provide gloves and coats and hats and winter shoes to the more than 1,300 impoverished children in the county who live above an altitude of 2,600 meters.

Lump payments of cash were suddenly given to schools in the area, including Wang’s own school, to install heaters in classrooms where there is no heating at all through the tough winter months.

But what I want to know is why wasn’t anything done sooner? Surely freezing children sitting in cold, wet classrooms should never been seen as okay. Surely kids shouldn’t be walking 4.5 kilometers through freezing weather just to get an education. Surely a picture of a school boy covered in ice going viral shouldn’t be needed to get action happening at the grass roots level.

And why haven’t I done anything to help?

If anything, this story has highlighted the power of social media in speeding up the pace of change. It’s very democratic, although the masses are often prone to group hysteria, and that’s not good either.

In any event, I’m sure the story of Snowflake Boy has left many officials in his county, and in other parts of the country, anxious to ensure something like this doesn’t go “viral” again, and that’s a good thing. 

Maybe it’s just the kick up the butt that was needed to really ensure aid can get to where it’s needed, and kids aren’t arriving at school covered in ice.

That would only be a good thing.

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