Written by Xiaogang Wu.

A tragedy took place in June 2015 in the countryside of Guizhou Province, China. A local family of four brothers and sisters in Bijie, the oldest 13 and the youngest only 5, committed collective suicidal by taking poison. In 2012, also in Guizhou, five homeless children were found dying in dumpsters—it was presumed that those kids just wanted to get warmed by huddling there but died of suffocation. During 2013 and 2014, hundreds of cases of sexual assault on children that had occured in poor rural areas were uncovered by Chinese authorities.

If the sexual assaults on children and youth fatality events are not unique to China, the peculiarity is that the majority of vulnerable victims are so-called “left-behind” children. These children are “left behind” in rural areas by their migrant parents working in distant cities. They are under the care of grandparents who are mostly uneducated, or relatives and family friends who are likely to pay little attention to their well-being. In some extreme cases, these children even have to take care of themselves. Poverty is arguably an important reason for the abovementioned tragedies, but not the whole story.

In 2013 the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) estimated the number of left-behind children had reached six million. The 2010 census, put the population of migrant children in urban areas at three and a half million. This indicates that approximately two thirds of migrant workers’ children were left behind.

A serious consequence of parents’ working in these distant areas is a severe lack of education,  as shown by the findings of our recent article on school enrolment of children from 7 to 14 years old in urban China. By analyzing the micro-data from population censuses in 1990 and 2000 and the mini-census in 2005, we found that the absence of parents or grandparents significantly decreases the likelihood of school enrolment. If the left-behind children are living with people other than parents or grandparents, they also perform poorly.

Left-behind children’s school drop-out rate and general negligence have attracted public attention. However, the situation of children who are brought with their parents to urban centres, i.e. migrant children, cannot be ignored either. Through further examination of the 2000 and 2005 census data, we find that, compared with non-migrant children in both their origin counties and destination areas, the migrant children are significantly less likely to be enrolled in school. Thus migrant children fare even worse than the children left-behind.

The education and other wellbeing of left-behind and migrant children have been a national concern for years in China. Strong efforts and attention have been called for to protect children from abuse and to promote their welfare. Whereas the former requires law enforcement, the latter is mainly in terms of public sympathy and donations, 9-year compulsory education and local officials’ administrative accountability system. Unfortunately, the education problem of both the left-behind and migrant children seems to be as serious as it gets, especially in terms of subjective well-being.

Three questions arise from these observations: (1) why do parents choose to leave their children behind instead of raising them personally? (2) what are the critical factors underlying these children’s lack of education and care? (3) what obstacles lie between the actual effects and policies implemented to improve children’s education and other wellbeing?

The Chinese ‘hukou’ system is first to blame for restricting the ability of families to stay together. The mismatch between the social service systems, mainly the education and the medical care service, and the rapid relaxation of population migration control is the major obstacle for parents to raise their children. Installed in the late 1950s, the ‘hukou’ system was employed by the Party to control population migration during the country’s socialist-style industrialization. Since economic reform, along with the speedy development of the Chinese economy, this administrative control was relaxed in the 1990s, and labour resources were able to gravitate to where the jobs were. Thereafter geographic mobility has increased more rapidly than ever before. The size of the “floating population” reached 144 million in 2000 (Liang and Ma, 2004) and 147 million in 2006 (National Bureau of Statistics in China, 2006).

Nevertheless, subsidized health care and public schooling are strictly linked to the ‘hukou’ and are inaccessible to migrants, unless they pay extra fees. To avoid a costly urban life, most migrant workers either choose to leave their children behind or are inattentive if they have to raise their kids personally. Such discriminatory policies have created special hurdles to socio-economic attainment not only for the adult rural migrants themselves, but also for their offspring, particularly in regard to the latter’s access to educational opportunities in urban destinations. For as long as the left-behind and migrant children’s issues are still developing, ‘hukou’ reform carries on at a very slow pace: while the ratio of children living in urban areas has increased from 16.75% in 1990 to 37.93% in 2005, the ratio of children with a rural ‘hukou’ only increased from 14.73% to 19.47% during the same period.

Another critical factor keeping these children away from education is the loss of social capital in the migrants’ original counties. The geographic move directly brings detrimental effects to social capital embedded in family, neighbourhood, kinship and the community, of which parental care for children is probably the most significant. Sociologists have repeatedly shown that family structure plays a crucial role in affecting child development and subsequent socio-economic attainment. While social exclusion based on the ‘hukou’ system may affect family living arrangements and child care, the real damage is that done to the social norms associated with frequent movement, such as deteriorating interpersonal communications and rising divorce rates.

Poverty alone cannot account for people who shirk their obligations. Empirically, we find that, while the children with a rural ‘hukou’ are particularly disadvantaged in school enrolment, the effect of migration status applies to all children in urban China regardless of their ‘hukou’ status, confirming the importance of parents’ care for their child’s education. Our empirical study on the left-behind and migrant children education problem has policy implications for ‘hukou’ reform and the social support for children affected by their parents’ migration.

Xiaogang Wu is Professor of Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Research Affiliate of the Populations Study Centre at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Image Credit: CC by Thomas Galvez/flickr.