Left Behind Children

Modern China is home to many phrases that seem to exist in few other parts of the world. Phrases like: Cancer Village, Blue-sky Days, and Gutter Oil. Perhaps the most troubling of these is “Left Behind…”, because the full damage is much harder to see. This phrase refers to children, wives and elderly parents who are left in the countryside while the productive generation heads to the cities to look for work, and captures a few of the issues we’ll be exploring over the next few days.

Parents in rural China face a difficult choice once they have decided to look for work in a place beyond their hukou status: should they bring their child with them?

If they bring their child with them as they look for work, it can mean an incredibly difficult life for their young one. Since migrant worker’s children lack a hukou registration for the new town, they are not allowed to enroll in the public schools, instead they are supposed to register for the migrant worker schools. Which are supposedly separate but equal (this language is intentional, as hukou related issues have been called China’s Apartheid).

These schools often are of shoddy construction and lack certified teachers, but are the only option for migrant families who want to remain together. These schools are regularly shut down by local governments for a variety of reasons, that seem to be more about their public image than concern for their health. This often leads to children being left without any options for education. With that being said, many of these schools are no place for children, as a number of children have been abused in these unlicensed centers.

Officially there has been some discussion that these children should be admitted to public schools if no migrant schools exist, but this is something that is virtually never seen. After all, public school have zero incentive to accept poor students who cannot afford materials or afford the fees, and are likely already behind their urban counterparts. Considering that even a local child in Shenzhen, who was burned in an accident can be refused entry to kindergarten, it should not be surprising that migrant workers face equal challenges.

The other option is to leave their children behind with family members in the countryside (which I explored earlier this week). Here these children also face substandard schools, poor sanitation, limited access to medical treatment, and few opportunities at a better life. These rural schools are lacking, but at least offer a more stable environment for learning than the urban migrant schools.

I would estimate that nearly 75% of my students in Guangxi had at least one parent working in a distant city and more than 1/3rd were being raised by a grandparent or aunt and uncle, and I did not have a single student who admitted to attending a migrant worker school. I’m not sure how representative these numbers are of children outside of the colleges I worked at in Guangxi. Perhaps they were able to attend college only because of their parents’ sacrifice, or maybe they could have accomplished much more if their parents had been at home to motivate their studies.

For the time being it seems that leaving children behind in the countryside is the better option for a child’s future, but at the same time it dissolves the family bonds that are the basis of Chinese society. I am thankful everyday that I will not have to make a decision as heart-wrenching as this. And I hope someday, for my students’ childrens’ sake, that in a future China, they will not have to make this kind of choice either. Children, regardless of their parent’s situation, deserve equal access to education and opportunities.

About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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11 Responses to Left Behind Children

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    It’s beyond gut wrenchingly sad! I worked with abused children in Scotland. I am concerned about the level of child abuse in China, both intentional and unintentional (ie caused by well meaning parents with few life choices).

  2. This is similar to the dilemma many Mexican migrant workers face when they come to US. It’s a big problem with no simple solution. Let the migrant kids attend the city schools where they’ll be behind in their studies and likely be segregated into remedial classes or be forced to drop out. Seems like getting substandard education in the countryside is better than no education at all.

    • yaxue c. says:

      A lot of these children come to the cities at a very young age with their parents, if they are allowed (this is what stirs my blood–they are every bit chinese citizens, for crying out loud!) to go the same public schools to begin with, they don’t have to be substandard and they will not be.

      美丽, these left-behind children are particularly vulnerable to child-abuse. Neglect is common, which itself is a form of abuse.

  3. yaxue c. says:

    Tom, the word Apartheid is also on the mind of a lot of decent Chinese–the man whom I quoted the other day who wrote about bribing educators also wrote, in the same essay, how this word surfaced in his mind and how repelled he felt by its ugliness.

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