China's government has moved to address the issue of children left behind by migrant parents
Its rigid "hukou" registration system means their children often can't access public services in cities
Many children left behind struggle at school, have higher rates of mental health issues
Facing a rising crisis of children’s welfare in its vast and poor rural areas, China has issued a set of guidelines aimed at protecting children left behind by parents who work away from home to make more money.
The government’s message to millions of migrant workers: Take your children with you to the cities if you can and, at the very least, check on them regularly if you have to leave them behind.
Beijing also requested rural officials to keep track of left-behind children by setting up files, visiting them at home and making sure their parents talk to them via phone or video chat.
The new guidelines come at a time of rapid urbanization in China, with an estimated 100 million people expected to move from the countryside to towns and cities.
Most migrant workers leave their kids at home because a rigid household registration system – called hukou – means the children are often denied education and health care in the cities.
“I’m happy to hear there are new regulations,” said 73-year-old old Tang Xinying. “I just doubt the local authorities will implement them – they only care about themselves.”
Tang’s skepticism points to the uphill battle China faces in reducing the staggering number of left-behind children, which exceeds 60 million – or one in five nationwide – by the government’s own admission.
Tang, who lives in a village in the inland Anhui Province, has been raising her 7-year-old grandson, Lu Yiming, by herself since his parents left home to seek city jobs.
Lu’s mother died of cancer last year. His father, Tang’s only son, works as a construction worker in another province hundreds of miles to the north.
When CNN first met Tang and Lu last year, the grandmother was already lamenting the challenge of raising a young boy at her age.
One minute, Lu was on the concrete roof of his two-story house, the next he was fiddling with fireworks or skating down an alley.
“Come back here!” yelled Tang. “I have such a headache raising this child.”
Children like Lu often struggle at school, have higher rates of mental health issues, and suffer from more behavioral problems than their contemporaries. In one extreme case last year, the suicide of four such children in southwestern China caught national attention.
Old and very young left behind
In Chaohu, a dead-end track passes by half-finished housing projects and abandoned fields. A yellow haze hangs in the air leaving a metallic taste in the mouth.
China’s industrial pollution made it out here, but the jobs haven’t.
Everyone of working age in Chaohu has gone to the cities to find work, leaving the old and very young behind.
A typical scene in the village looks like this: A group of old women sit on three-legged wooden stools listening to Chinese opera on a small radio. Another walks by knitting. Some old men make bootleg liquor in an oil drum.
“We don’t have fields that we can farm, if you don’t go out to work, then how do you earn an income?” said Tang. “Their parents have to work outside of town and they cannot bring their children with them.”
The All China Women’s Federation, a state-run organization, has painted a bleak picture for left-behind children.
A steady stream of state media reports highlights the abuse suffered by left-behind children, and crimes are often blamed on them.
“It has a huge impact on society and the generation of people who grow up without parents,” said Ines Kaempfer, of the Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility. “There is a generation of Chinese society that lacks security and trust. It could have a potentially disastrous effect.”
Unintended consequences of mass urbanization and migration are not unique to China, but draconian rules have made the problem worse.
China’s much-hated hukou system registers families as either rural or urban. Most migrants can’t change their household registration when they move.
They struggle to access social services in urban areas. Their children often can’t go to public schools – even if they are born in the cities.
Critics say the hukou system has created a vast underclass of cheap labor to help drive China’s manufacturing revolution.
Recognizing some of its failures, the ruling Communist Party has proposed reforms of the system, including doing away with temporary residence permits.
“Though it is better than before, the hukou system is a huge problem,” said Fan Bin, a professor with East China University of Science and Technology. “Migrants can’t afford to keep their children in big cities, the rent is high and the wages are low, and they can’t pay the tuition for private schools.”
Back in Chaohu last year, Tang was cooking a meal of rice and spinach for her grandson. She swirled peanut oil on her simple stovetop.
“I can’t teach my grandson well. This boy should be educated by his father and mother,” she said, “I cannot catch him when he runs away from me. I cannot discipline him when he misbehaves.
“We don’t have a choice, even if the situation isn’t good. If I don’t take care of him, who will?”