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2011/10/29 / Horace

Children Left-behind by China’s Modernization

A series of photos called “My younger brother wants to sleep”, in which a schoolgirl has to take care of her younger brother during class, has been widely circulated on China’s online community.

The girl looking at her younger brother

The girl trying to calm down the crying baby


The girl in the photo, Long Zhanghuan, is from a small village in Central China’s Hu’nan Province. The boy she is looking after in the photo is her 2-year-old cousin.

Both Long and her cousins’ parents are working outside the village and could not take care of the family, leaving only grandparents looking after the kids.

Long’s grandparents have to look after 8 children altogether although Long Wanting, the grandfather is physically challenged and has to walk with a crutch.

The older kids have to look after themselves and take care of the younger ones. Sometimes, the older ones have to take the younger ones to school.

It is commonplace in the village where Long’s family lives, according to a report on Xinhua, China’s official news agency.

Not alone

Chinese media and public call children like Long Zhanghuan the “left-behind children”, which means they are left behind by both or one of their parents who are working far away from their home.

According to the People’s Daily, there are around 58mln “left-behind children” in China. The number means that more than 1/4 of children in rural areas are “left-behind”.

The People’s Daily adds that around 1/3 of rural children between 0 to 3 years old are also “left-behind”.

In many cases, the burden of raising children falls on the old in the family.  China News Service once reported that a 2-year-old left behind children stayed with the corpse of her grandmother, who had been dead for 7 days.

When the girl was found by her mother, she was covered with maggots and suffered from several kinds of infections, severe dehydration and other diseases.

The other side of modernization

Most of “left-behind children” are living in provinces in Central and West China, which are more populous but less developed. It is because China’s imbalance in its development.

While the coastal areas of China are booming, the Central China and Western China are very much falling behind in economy. Therefore, many are moving from the west to the east for more job opportunities and better pay.

Sometimes, they can earn several times more than what they can earn in their hometown.

However, China’s household registration system or hukou has prevented both these migrants and their children from enjoying the same welfare as those “locals”. For example, my hukou is registered in Heilongjiang Province, although I am working, living and paying taxes in Beijing, I will never be allowed to have public housing in Beijing , and if I had a child, my child would not be allowed to go to public schools unless I got a list of certificates.

A better option for migrants’ children might be to stay in their hometown, since it’s easier for them to get education, take part in the College Entrance Examination and do many other things.

Dark childhood

However, leaving children at home alone will cause serious problems, according to a book focusing on left-behind children in China.

Left-behind children, the book says, are often burdened with housework and even farm work. They even have to take care of others in the family.

The book further adds that these children are not only more exposed to physical injuries and harms but are also more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, bullying, discrimination and psychological problems due to lack of parenting.

The People’s Daily reports that left-behind children are the second biggest victimized group of robbery, beating, violence, abduction and humiliation. The largest victims are migrant children, referring to those who move from city to city with their parents.


“Left-behind children” have aroused social attention, and measures have been taken.

Boarding schools are considered to be good for “left-behind children” because they can provide better care and education as well as programs to deal with these children’s psychological problems.

More attention and care from the neighborhood can also help the children enjoy a happy life.

Moreover, parents of “left-behind children” shall keep in frequent contact with their children. Instead of mere giving money, they should also offer emotional support as much as they can.

Most importantly, just as a commentary on China Youth Daily says, hukou system must be reformed and equal access must be brought to all children. Without equal rights and opportunities to get education and other benefits, children will still encounter difficulties in living with their migrant worker parents.

The problem is, hukou system has been existing in China for decades, and governments in places like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong where huge numbers of migrant workers are working seem unwilling to spare much money in promoting migrants’ welfare.


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