Tang Chunwu set off from his room in a ramshackle inn just after sunrise, the beginning of Day 92 in his search for his son.
Winding through a route calculated to take him through the busiest parts of town, Tang stopped to put up posters asking if someone, anyone, had seen the round-faced young man with glasses. The poster described his son in clipped phrases: named Tang Gongwei, 26 years old, about 5 feet 7 inches tall.
It also described why he went missing. He discovered he had stomach cancer. He did not want to burden his parents. His only option, he felt, was to vanish.
Tang’s quest has captivated China in part because of a cruel irony: His son was not a common labourer like him but a pharmacist, working in China’s vast health care system. If anybody could get treatment, the thinking goes, it is someone like him.
“Manual labour was tough and tiring, but nothing compares to the struggles right now,” said Tang, a 55-year-old farmer whose son has his chin and cheekbones.
Nearly a decade after the roll-out of an ambitious £101 billion health care reform plan, millions of people cannot afford the treatments they need for serious illnesses. Insurance coverage of major illnesses like cancer is low, and many cancer-related drugs are not covered at all. Local governments, lacking cash, sometimes fail to reimburse patients.
“China’s health care system must find a way to reduce its costs,” Li Ling, an economics professor at Peking University who advises China’s Cabinet on medical reform, said. “It is too expensive now and has surpassed what most ordinary people can afford.”
Cancer diagnoses in China are soaring and survival rates are low. About 4.3 million cancer cases were diagnosed in 2015, or almost 12,000 cases a day. That is nearly double the rate five years before, according to official figures.
In rural China, where about 41 per cent of the population lives, only about one-fifth of cancer patients survive five years past their diagnosis. In urban areas, about 40 per cent survive, according to China’s National Cancer Prevention and Research Centre. In the United States, by comparison, more than two-thirds survive through that period.
Tang Gongwei’s disappearance was widely reported in the Chinese media, with some outlets mistakenly saying that he was a doctor. The fact that he was a medical professional fuelled the discussion about him online, and many internet users said they would also have left because they did not want to burden their own parents.
Like many other Chinese children, Tang Gongwei grew up without siblings. Local officials enforced family planning rules zealously, tearing down houses of couples who had more than one child, according to his mother, Liao Mandong.
“At least if you gave birth to a girl, you were allowed to have another one,” she said. China’s one-child policy allowed rural residents to have a second child if the first one was a girl, unlike their counterparts living in urban areas.
From early on, the Tangs found their son to be introverted and studious. He enrolled in the prestigious Yali High School, one of China’s top high schools, in the city of Changsha.
After graduation, he joined a public hospital in the city of Hengyang as a pharmacist. He had medical insurance from the hospital, but earned just over £233 a month.
On 15 February, Tang Gongwei told his father that he had stomach cancer. He apologised repeatedly to his parents for adding to their burdens. Tang, who earned just over £116 a year farming rice, told him not to worry, saying he was willing to borrow money.
But Tang Gongwei could not live with that. On 21 February, he placed a letter on top of his pillow. In it, he asked his parents for forgiveness.
“If I leave my parents not only overcome with the grief of losing their son but also struggling financially in their twilight years, then it’s a sin that can’t be forgiven,” he said. “Even if I die more than 10,000 times.”
Tang later discovered that his son had bought a train ticket to Zhangjiajie, a popular tourist spot in central China with the ethereal mountain landscape that many in China say resembles the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.” He and his wife scoured parts of the city but to no avail.
By SUI-LEE WEE