BEIJING, China — A generation of more than 60 million children now grows up in the shadow of China’s new wealth, according to an academic estimate. For the most part, the past few decades of the 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 within the nation, particularly the children left behind in rural China.
Family Separation in 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 face life alone.
Hukou dictates that citizens will only have access to welfare programs, such as health care 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 centers, 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 home the little money they earn. 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, China notes increases in child mental health issues, malnutrition and even sexual abuse. Researchers say that many of these children 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.
China’s Policy Changes
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 their safety ad attendance of compulsory education.
These changes are a start to fixing 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 in 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 migrant workers. While the northern steel and cement plants and luxury goods 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
Photo: Flickr/Gauthier DELECROIX