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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The "Left-Behind-Children" of China

Article by: Nicolas Woreth

This article was written by a 2024 Rohatyn Global Fellow as part of a collaboration with the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs at Middlebury College

Urban China and its Forgotten Children

The beginning of the 2010s marked a turning point for China’s demography. In 2011,  for the first time in the country’s 5000-year history,  the urban population accounted for the majority of the nation’s total. This trend reflects the range of opportunities that Chinese urban hubs offer, with consistently high growth rates and low levels of unemployment. Yet, is this an indicator that living standards in the countryside may be unsatisfactory? Despite an official figure of 0% of people in rural areas living below the nation’s poverty line in 2020, the population in rural areas dropped from 800 million to 500 million from 2000 to 2020, largely as a result of the significant salary gap between rural and urban areas (a 250% difference). In a 2020 documentary series called “First in Life” (人生第一次), the Chinese public channel CCTV presents the life of Mu Qingyun, a 12-year-old girl from a village in Yunnan province whose mum went to work in a factory in Guangzhou after her dad had passed away and her house was destroyed by a landslide. Qingyun shops, cooks, and goes to school alone. The higher cost of living may partly explain why Qingyun’s mum could not take her child with her to Guangzhou. However, the Chinese Hukou System is a structural reason for this situation recurring all over the country which has led to 1 in 5 children in China becoming, like Qingyun, the “left-behind children” (LBC). We will explore this Hukou System and the impact it has on children now in more detail.

How Does the Hukou System Relate to LBC?

The Hukou (household registration) system was designed to restrict citizens’ ability to move from rural to urban areas in China. It was believed that eliminating the risk of population decline in rural areas would preserve the adequate supply chain flow of agricultural goods to the rest of the country. Within the Hukou system, each citizen inherits a household registration in a particular city, town, or village from their parents. Hukou-related legislation can change depending on the province and the city, often restricting  newcomers’ ability to purchase property, access benefits, and access education in a city other than that of their Hukou, and prioritizing families who have been in place for several generations. Some public schools charge prohibitive “fees” for registering migrant children, while reputable public schools may be inclined to refuse migrant children admission due to limited space. Some students must thereby attend a school further away, leading to the inevitable addition of transportation expenses. As a result, parents  frequently choose between unaffordable private schools, underfunded “migrant schools” supported by local associations, or leaving their children at home; which many eventually do.

Access to Urban Hukou for Newcomers

It can be difficult for migrant workers to transfer Hukou even after years of living and working in a city where they do not hold official residence. In Shanghai for instance, 9,726,000 of the 14,456,000 residents do not hold official household registration. Unskilled workers are required to work and contribute to social insurance in the city  for at least 7 years before being allowed to apply for a Hukou. Additionally, the process of changing Hukou raises certain concerns that can be paralleled with the bureaucracy involved in becoming naturalized in a foreign country. Transferring Hukou could imply losing the benefits that a previous Hukou granted, including for example, land ownership, and workers’ abilities to return home to live. Doing so thereby involves risking the loss of livelihood guarantee that an urban Hukou alone may not necessarily grant.

Impact on Left-Behind Children

LBC are known to perform more poorly academically than rural children living with one or two parents. In addition, LBC suffer higher levels of mental health disorders and loneliness. In particular, LBC are more susceptible to anxiety and lower self-esteem. These consequences may be long-term as research conducted by the Rural Education Action Program in 2016 has shown that a parent’s later return does not lead to mental health scores to return to normal. Loneliness, neglect and (absence of) parental education have led LBC to present higher levels of suicide attempts than non-LBC.

Protecting LBC and the Harm Caused by Loneliness

A group of seven Chinese researchers have outlined potential solutions for mental health problems among LBC, including strengthening teacher-student relationships to reduce loneliness. They have also found that teachers and NGO staff instilling hope in LBC has a positive impact on their level of perceived discrimination and life satisfaction. In a 2016 opinion disclosure, the State Council (China’s national executive power branch) publicly acknowledged the risks for LBC of growing up without parents and expressed its views on how to address the issue. These included reasserting migrant parents’ duty to be present for their children, encouraging financial, educational, and psychological support for LBC in rural areas, as well as ensuring that migrant children have access to compulsory public education and benefits in urban hubs where their parents are employed. This forms part of the national government’s move to alter the current functioning of urban Hukou.

Hukou Reform?

In recent years, the central government has exerted increased pressure on local authorities to reform Hukou. On the 3rd of August 2023, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) called on cities with fewer than 5 million people to abolish or loosen Hukou restrictions. However, urban authorities have been reluctant to implement this. Extending benefits to migrant workers could potentially compromise public finances and local government debt, as well as potentially limiting the privileges of their long-term residents. In addition, in places where reform has been implemented, academics Alexsia T. Chan and Kevin J. O’Brien found that local officials may find ways to circumvent regulations and deny migrant workers access to benefits. This illustrates the fragmented nature of the Chinese political regime and the disparity that emerges between what the central government wants and what the local authorities choose to implement. It is not certain whether the Chinese government will be able to overcome fragmentation and ensure higher levels of integration of migrant workers in urban hubs, which is crucial for the protection of China’s LBC in the future. 

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