BEIJING — A generation of more than 60 million children is now growing up in the shadow of China’s new wealth, according to an academic estimate. For the most part, the past few decades of economic boom in China has improved lives. Since 1989, China’s GDP per capita has increased from $130 to more than $6,500. As China’s economic growth begins to slow, however, the country must now focus on sustainable development and addressing the problems that have been created, particularly the children left behind in rural China.
According to Song Yinghui, a law professor at Beijing Normal University, more than 60 million children have been left behind by their parents in rural China, and a further 36 million moved to cities with their parents but may have become separated. As a result of hukou, an internal passport/housing registration system designed to control migration to the cities, the children are forced to live with older relatives or alone.
Hukou dictates that citizens will only have access to welfare programs, such as healthcare or schooling, in their hometowns where they are registered. Massive wealth inequality between the countryside and the cities means work opportunities are concentrated in urban centres, and for many working parents who migrate there is no way to bring their children with them. The parents have no choice but to leave and send back what little money they make. China has a GINI coefficient of 0.474, making it more unequal than Peru and the Philippines
With so many children now forced to live on their own, there have been rampant mental health issues, malnutrition and even sexual abuse. Researchers say that many of these kids have anxiety and depression, and “exhibit high rates of juvenile delinquency and poor school performance.” And, according to a survey taken for a charity called Growing Home, children left behind are four times as likely to be short for their age and are at a higher risk of turning to crime. They lag in emotional and social development and are intensely lonely. In the face of all these problems, suicide is an all-too-common end for many young people.
In response to this nearly forgotten generation, the Chinese government has made policy changes to improve conditions. To start, the government plans to conduct the first comprehensive survey of left-behind children and more accurately assess the size of the problem. In December 2015, the government also announced that it would begin to offer residency status, instead of work permits, to some migrant workers, who would then be able to take their children with them. The Chinese government has also called on rural governments and public organizations to monitor children who live alone, ensuring they attend the compulsory education and are safe.
These changes are a start to fixing what is a massive problem, although some have suggested abolishing the hukou system altogether, and modernizing property rights so that migrants can sell their homes and have the freedom to move about the country more permanently. Knowing that China also faces a massive vacancy problem involving 49 million urban homes, an increase of migration into the cities could further sustain economic growth, according to the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance.
Others have suggested moving this burden onto the factories and companies that employ the migrant workers. While the northern steel and cement plants and luxury good manufacturers may be in the slump, the southern manufacturing markets are still quite healthy. In some cities, factory owners are even having trouble “finding enough workers to produce the world’s clothing and smartphones”. If these factories were to create on-site housing and schooling for worker families, more migrants would be incentivized to work there, perhaps even for lower wages.
More solutions exist than just the passive ones the Chinese government plans to implement to create sustainable development. While the social cost of this left-behind generation is already high, the economic cost may be inconceivable, especially when China is doing nearly everything it can to maintain economic growth. The Chinese government needs to act quickly and dramatically to save this generation.
– Henry Gao