By Horace Lu
A series of photos entitled “My younger brother wants to sleep”, in which a schoolgirl is seen taking care of her younger brother during class, recently went viral on the Chinese internet.
The girl in the photo, Long Zhanghuan, is from a small village in Central China’s Hunan Province. The boy she is looking after is her 2-year-old cousin.
Both Long and her cousin’s parents work outside the village and are unable to take care of the family, leaving only the grandparents to look after the kids.
Long’s grandparents have to look after 8 children in total although Long Wanting, the grandfather, is physically challenged and has to walk with the assistance of a crutch.
The older kids have to look after themselves and take care of the younger ones, and even take them along to school from time to time.
Such a situation is commonplace in the village where Long’s family lives, and in many other villages around China.
The Chinese media have a name for children like Long Zhanghuan whose parents have migrated in search of a better life for their family — they’re China’s “left-behind children” (留守儿童).
The People’s Daily estimates some 58 million “left behind children” in China. The number means that more than a quarter of children in rural areas are “left behind”.
In many cases, the burden of raising the kids falls on the grandparents, but sad tales abound when they themselves fall ill or suddenly pass away. China was recently stunned by a report of a 2-year-old child found 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 left behind children are concentrated around central and western China, home to less developed provinces.
While China’s coastal areas are booming, these regions have fallen back economically, leading many of their residents to move eastwards in search of job opportunities and better pay.
China’s household registration, or hukou system, however, has prevented both these migrants and their children from enjoying the same welfare as locals in their newly adopted homes. They would, for instance, not be considered to be eligible for public housing, nor would their children be admitted to public schools in the city.
Because of these and other reasons, many migrants choose to leave their children behind in their hometowns so it would be easier for them to receive an education and take part in the College Entrance Examinations.
However, leaving the children behind at home causes a raft of other problems, according to new research on left behind children in China.
Many of these children are often burdened with housework, farm work, and even have to take care of others in the family.
Left behind 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 form the second biggest group of victims of robbery, beating, violence and abduction. The largest victims are migrant children, referring to those who move from city to city with their parents.
Several measures have been suggested to address the problem of left behind children.
Boarding schools are considered to be an option 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 community can also help the children enjoy a happy life.
Parents of left behind children should also 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, however, just as a commentary on China Youth Daily notes, there is an urgent need for the hukou system to be reformed and for equal access to 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.
Yet, because the hukou system has been entrenched in China for decades, local governments in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou which attract huge numbers of migrant workers continue to drag their feet in improving the welfare of migrants.