China is home to an estimated 61 million “left-behind children” whose parents have left home for work. Although the basic physical needs of most are met, their behavioural and psychological well-being go largely ignored.
On the 19th June 2015, a study into the mental health of China’s “left-behind children,” mostly those in rural areas whose parents or one parent have moved away for work, was released by the non-profit organisation Shangxuelushang (SXLS), whose name reads in Chinese as “On the Way to School.”
Researchers surveyed over 2,000 left-behind children in six provinces and regions mainly in the central and western parts of China.
According to their findings, nearly 10 million left-behind children in China, or more than 15 percent, have no physical contact with their parents, with a further 4.3 percent failing to receive a single telephone call or other form of communication at any point during the year, even during the weeks-long Chinese New Year holiday.
The survey indicated that close to nine million left-behind children contact their parents once or twice a year, and 15 million contact their parents at least once every three months.
It warned that children who have no contact with their parents at least once every three months are more likely to be “upset” and “confused” than those living in more settled circumstances.
The survey also pointed out that left-behind children living in northwestern China, a relatively underdeveloped region, are the most susceptible to mental health problems, with girls at greater risk on average than boys.
The report went on to state that reading, playing, doing an appropriate amount of homework and living with their mothers can significantly reduce the risk of left-behind children developing psychological problems.
Liu Xinyu, the SXLS director who led the survey, told our reporter that in China, while left-behind children have become something of a cause célèbre, there remains a lack of systematic and continuous research into the issue, especially regarding the psychological impact of growing up without the presence of a capable parent or guardian.
“As an NGO dedicated to the psychological problems [of left-behind children], we want to present both statistical analysis and suggestions of how to improve their mental health,” Liu told China Report. “The aim of the report is to encourage the public to care for left-behind children and create a better spiritual world for them.”
From the mid-1980s, as a manufacturing- and construction-fuelled economic boom swept through coastal provinces, a growing number of rural labourers flocked to eastern cities in search of better job opportunities.
According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China was home to 274 million such migrant workers by the end of 2014, accounting for roughly one-fifth of the whole population.
A raft of social and institutional barriers, including the hukou policy, which effectively restricts an individual’s access to social services and welfare to their official birthplace, have barred migrant workers and their offspring from becoming fully integrated into city life, resulting in a vast population of left-behind children in rural areas.
Even if migrant workers insist on bringing their children to the city where they work, the relatively high cost of urban living and administrative barriers that keep migrant children from enrolling in urban schools often prove insurmountable. It was not until the early 2000s that the issue of left-behind children began to attract media attention as an aspect of the government’s approach to China’s “three nong [rural] issues” of agriculture, rural development and farmers.
According to a survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation in 2013, there are over 61 million left-behind children in China, accounting for 37.7 percent of children in rural areas and nearly 22 percent of children nationwide — meaning more than one out of every five children is living without one or both of their parents, three million more than were in the same situation five years ago.
In addition, there are an estimated 35.8 million migrant children living with their parents in cities. Both of these figures are still growing. The federation’s report also added that one third of left-behind children in rural areas are living with grandparents, while 3.37 percent, over two million children, are home alone.
According to the “Report on Family Development 2015” released by the National Health and Family Planning Commission, two-year-olds account for the highest proportion of left-behind children in China.
A recent China Youth & Children Research Centre (CYCRC) survey indicated that the principal desire of left-behind children is to “live with their parents, whether in cities or in their rural homes.”
Sun Yunxiao, deputy director of CYCRC, said that the younger the child, the greater their emotional need, emphasising that parental care is “irreplaceable” at each different stage of child development.
“The biggest problem facing left-behind children is the lack of parental care which is likely to result in emotional desertification, making them less likely to care for others [in the future],” Sun told Beijing Youth Daily.
Li Yifei, deputy director of the Scientific Communication and Education Research Centre at Beijing Normal University and the author and academic consultant on the SXLS report, said during the report’s launch event that even professional psychiatrists find it hard to identify and treat the psychological problems suffered by left-behind children.
“Most left-behind children do not display severe mental problems and it is also impossible to conduct the massive psychological intervention the large number of left-behind children [would require],” he said. “But the cold numbers clearly reveal that they are suffering.”
Ye Jingzhong, head of the College of Humanities and Development Studies at China Agricultural University, a long-time rural children’s rights advocate, conducted a survey of 400 left-behind children in several Chinese provinces, concluding that only 50 percent of those children’s parents returned home at least once per calendar year.
“For most of their childhood, left-behind children are actually orphans,” he told Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.
Dong Yuhong, a fifth-grader at a school in the Development District of Dalian, Liaoning Province, began living alone with his mother five years ago because at that time his father started work as a miner in Taxkorgan Tajik Autonomous County, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Dong told China Report that he is happiest during Chinese New Year, when his father comes home, but added that the knowledge his father would inevitably leave again also made it a bittersweet time of year.
“My biggest wish is that my father would attend a parents’ meeting at my school. I envy those children who get to play with their fathers every day,” he told our reporter. “I will study very hard and earn more money after I grow up, so my father will not need to leave home to work.”
For 13-year-old Liu Jia, currently attending school in Nayong County, Bijie City, Guizhou Province, she’d settle for a shopping trip to buy snacks with her parents. She told China Report that she particularly misses her parents when she sees other families holding hands. Her parents call her for a few minutes once a month.
“Every time they give me a call, they ask about my performance at school. I wish they’d ask more about my life, whether or not I am happy or whether or not I am lonely. But, in their eyes, my studies are the topic of choice,” she told China Report.
According to research conducted by CYCRC in May 2014, 42.7 percent of left-behind girls feel lonely “constantly,” 6.2 percent more than left-behind boys, and 6.7 percent more than girls who live with both parents.
The SXLS report also indicated that the less contact left-behind children have with their parents, the more confused and distressed those children become.
The SXLS study found that 21.5 percent of left-behind children in rural areas report higher levels of “annoyance,” indicating dissatisfaction with their current living conditions, while 16.4 percent were recorded as having a higher degree of “confusion,” an indicator for anxiety, particularly about the future.
Liu Xinyu told our reporter that during a recent research trip to Henan Province, he presented a drawing to a group of left-behind children and a group of children who live with their parents that depicted a child sitting on a doorstep and staring into the distance.
He asked the children what they felt about the picture. He said that while the children with parents living at home gave a range of responses, the left-behind children almost without exception stated that the child was “waiting for their parents to come back home.”
Chen Shuyao, 11, studies at Guihuayuan Primary School in Taohuajiang County, Hunan Province. Her parents, both under 40 years old, have been working for more than a decade in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, rarely returning home. Chen and her five-year- old sister are cared for by their grandparents.
“Six or seven months after I was born, my parents left home to work in the city. Even in my dreams I wish I could live with them. I do not like holidays because they are the loneliest time for me,” she told China Report.
During her summer holiday last year, Chen went to Guangzhou to stay with her parents for a time. She told our reporter that her parents got up at 4 or 5 AM every day, returning home around 10 PM.
“My father is reluctant to talk to me about his job and I only know my mother keeps a small newsstand in the city square,” Chen said.
According to the SXLS report, as many as 69.2 percent of left-behind children do not know what their parents do for a living.
“This past Chinese New Year was my happiest time at home with my parents,” Chen continued. “The whole family tried on new clothes, played games, told stories and set off fireworks together,” she said.
“On the day they left, I lowered my head — I did not want to see my parents leave, and I also did not want them to see me cry.”
Wen Mengqiang, head of Guihuayuan Primary School, told China Report that, according to statistics from the Taohuajiang County education bureau, of the 80,000 pupils enrolled in county schools, some 40 percent are left-behind children. “Our school is located in the urban-rural fringe zone, and 20 percent of our 1,900 pupils are left-behind children. A major task for our school is to take care of them and avoid tragedies from happening,” he said.
Zhang Xudong, researcher with CYCRC’s Children Institute, reeled off a sobering list of risk factors contributing to deaths and injuries among left-behind children. A lack of family supervision, an inadequate social care system and loopholes in programmes allowing government intervention were all issues, he said, adding that China’s left-behind children were largely neglected by the government and society until stories of murder, rape, accidental death and suicide among this vulnerable group began to appear in the domestic media.
One recent tragedy occurred in June, when four siblings aged between 5 and 13 died at a hospital after drinking pesticide in a village in Bijie City, Guizhou Province. The four children, three sisters and one brother, had been living on their own without a guardian since March, when their father landed a job in the city and their mother left home after an argument.
In a report released by Anhui Medical University in 2013, the incidence of accidental injury among left-behind children in rural areas is as high as 46.8 percent, 13 percent higher than the rate among children living with one or both parents. Of the nearly 50,000 Chinese children who die in accidents each year, most are left-behind children, according to official data.
Even more worrying is the seemingly strong tendency among left-behind children towards self harm and violent behaviour, which is only now beginning to be examined by experts.
The SXLS report indicated that left-behind children usually have a chronic lack of self-esteem and also tend towards egocentrism. They often feel resentful towards their parents and are prone to uncontrolled violent episodes.
Another report into the moral values of left-behind children living in rural areas in Guizhou Province echoed these conclusions. That report, conducted by staff from Xingyi Ethnic Normal University, found that 43.3 percent of left-behind children will wage a tit-for-tat war in conflict situations, with only 2 percent appearing to demonstrate empathy and a willingness to compromise.
Supreme People’s Court statistics show a high degree of criminality among left-behind children in China, with the group said to account for 70 percent of China’s cases of juvenile delinquency, the rate of which, according to the same data set, is rising by 13 percent year-on- year.
Alcohol and drug abuse, underage sexual activity and illicit gambling are all reported as common among the older members of this group.
“It is very hard to change bad habits developed in early life, which often presage criminality in later years,” Dong Shitan, professor at Shandong Police College, told China Report. “Being left-behind has marked potential to lead, insidiously, to juvenile delinquency.”
Dong cited the examples of recent cases of horrific assaults on school campuses, many of which were carried out by neglected youngsters, as evidence of the tendency of left-behind children to “harm themselves or harm others.”
Ruan Mei, a writer based in Yueyang, Hunan Province, wrote a book entitled Pains of the Century: Investigation into China’s Left-behind Children, based on research into 900 minor criminal cases in a juvenile detention facility and interview records collected from 11 teenagers. “I found that over 80 percent of inmates [at the facility] were left-behind children, and over 90 percent are either left-behind children or children from divorced families,” she told China Report.
“The most serious problem left-behind children face is psychological. More than 40 percent of my child interviewees were obviously mentally impaired,” she told the official Xinhua News Agency in an earlier interview, adding that more than 16 percent of her subjects thought that their parents did not love them, and that more than 80 percent said they felt insecure.
“Their pain is like the moon in daytime — it’s invisible, but it’s still there,” she said.
Yu Minhong, founder of the Beijing-based New Oriental Education Group and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top governmental advisory body, told media in March that it would be catastrophic if left-behind children who have been neglected were also unable to receive affection as adults. He added that if this group ultimately migrated to cities in search of work and continued the cycle, “it would be very traumatising for society.”
“This is the biggest problem facing China’s education system today. It deserves to be solved as soon as possible as part of a national strategy,” he added.
However, as the gap between urban and rural areas yawns ever wider, left-behind children are becoming a cheap backup force that will replenish the country’s vast population of migrant workers. Jiang Nengjie, a 30-year-old film maker, has spent six years shooting a documentary tracking the lives of left-behind children in his hometown, in Shaoyang, Hunan Province.
In one scene from the film, when Jiang asked children what they wanted to do when they grew up, the answer was virtually unanimous — “to land a job in a city as a migrant worker.” An unquestioning acceptance of the status quo among migrant families further exacerbates the problems China faces in integrating this “lost generation” into a modern, dynamic society.
Liu Xinyu believes that the recent tragedies involving left-behind children are just the tip of the iceberg.
He told China Report that the blame for such tragedies lies mainly with parents who fail to realise that it is their duty to raise children and provide them with affection and emotional support. He added that, in many cases, migrant parents were unaware that it was important for them to communicate regularly with their offspring.
“The whole of Chinese society has also failed to pay enough attention to left-behind children. We urgently need to care for their emotional needs because, if this group comes of age filled with pain, regret and even hatred, the effect on society would be unimaginable,” said Liu.