China’s rapid progress over the past few decades has created a very unique problem — that of left-behind children. These are kids who are left in their rural homes by parents who migrate to urban areas for work. As a result, such children are taken care of by their grandparents or other relatives from the extended family. According to a 2018 UNICEF report, there are around 69 million left-behind children in China, accounting for almost 30 percent of kids in rural areas.
Even though China has achieved massive economic growth as a nation, much of this growth is limited to cities and other urban regions. The rural areas have largely not benefited much from this economic jump. As such, people in villages have a far lower quality of life. This forces many people from these regions to migrate to urban centers for better pay and life. This is where the Hukou system or the household registration system becomes a major reason behind the rise in left-behind children.
The Hukou system is basically a tool to control internal migration. Though the government allows people to migrate anywhere in China to find a job, the Hukou system blocks them from getting social welfare and other benefits from the place they have migrated into. Such benefits can only be enjoyed in their birthplace. As such, if a rural migrant were to take their children with them to a city, the kids would be deprived of the education benefits they would have received had they stayed back home. Therefore, most migrants choose to leave their children behind.
Such children only see their parents roughly once a year during the Chinese New Year when millions of people go back home to celebrate the occasion. However, there are children who haven’t seen their parents in years and subsequently lose affection for them. Twenty-two-year-old Jie Fei was raised by his grandparents and now rarely talks to his parents.
“We haven’t spoken much for many years. We started to quarrel whenever we tried to talk to each other, so we just gave up on talking if [there was] nothing important… I know many people are in a similar position with me, with parents working away and being brought up by grandparents… But what I can’t let go of is parents of others at least come back home every Spring Festival. My parents haven’t come back for 10 years. They care too much about money,” he said to ABC News.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought some cheer to left-behind children as parents were forced to remain back in their hometowns due to government enacted lockdowns and other travel restrictions. As a result, many kids were able to spend more time with their parents this year than ever before.
Impact of being left behind
Many children show very low levels of life satisfaction. Those who are left behind at the age of three have been observed to have higher emotional issues than their peers who live with their parents. By the age of nine, such kids tend to have fewer pro-social behaviors. Some studies have shown that roughly 50 percent of left-behind children end up suffering from apprehension and melancholy to some degree. They are also more prone to anxiety, depression, introversion, inferiority complex, and so on.
These children are less enthusiastic in academic and other school activities. Many of them tend to drop out of school pretty early on. The low education level ends up pushing such kids into poverty when they grow up. Even if these children do stay in schools, their relationship with teachers tends to be fraught with difficulties.