The Lost Generation: China’s Migrants and Their Children

Written for the Freedom for Children Foundation by Anthony Ho

In my travels around China I often found myself waiting in bus stations and train stations with multitudes of fellow travellers. It was always common to see a few individuals, and rarely entire families, lugging unwieldy bundles of clothes and bedding wrapped in woven-plastic fabric. Shouldering their belongings along with their ambitions for a richer life, China’s rural migrants are increasingly drawn to urban settings in search for higher paying jobs in the manufacturing industry. What I witnessed was a miniscule fraction of the largest mass migration of people in history. According to 2014 census figures China’s migrant population was numbered at 274 million people – three times the number of people who immigrated to America from Europe over a century. The figure of rural workers flocking to sprawling cities is expected to reach 400 million by 2025.

Unsurprisingly, such an immense scale of mass migration is accompanied by severe social dislocation, and nothing highlights the human cost quite like the issue of China’s left-behind children; the so-called “lost generation.”

What is the situation of migrant workers? The mass migration of rural workers began in earnest in 1992 when China’s coastal economic powerhouses required an influx of workers to expand. Today, migrant workers account for 36 per cent of China’s entire workforce of around 770 million people and are largely responsible for China’s dramatic economic growth with manufacturing consistently accounting for one-third of the nation’s GDP, which has increased annually by 10 per cent in the past decade. To put the staggering extent of China’s rapid development into some perspective, from 2008 to 2013, China’s construction industry poured as much cement and its banks lent as much money as the US did in the whole of the 20th Century.

What is it like for migrant workers and their children? Despite the immeasurable economic contribution of migrant labourers, they remain marginalised and subject to institutionalised discrimination. Living on the fringes of society, they are often derisively labelled as waidiren, outsiders. As one worker told the Times of London, “we do the dirtiest and hardest work and everyone despises us.” Although “the middle class hates to see that kind of poverty… they can’t live without their cheap labour,” said Kam Wing Chan, a professor of China’s rural-migrant policies in Washington.

The most damaging aThe Lost Generationspect to migrant labourers and their children is China’s out-dated household registration system, which is affecting not only their status but also restricting their access to social welfare services. The current household registration system was introduced in 1958 to facilitate government welfare and resource distribution, internal migration control, and criminal surveillance. However, due to the massive influx of workers into urban areas, the current system is not only proving to be unenforceable but it is incredulously counter-productive to social and economic development. Individuals are broadly categorised as “rural” or “urban” citizens, which is determined by their place of residence. Each town or city issues its own domestic passport or hukou that provides residents access to social welfare services in that specific jurisdiction. As a result, the problem becomes evident as rural migrants who travel to cities seeking work are denied basic services such as health care, education, and housing. To make matters worse, the hukou system is hereditary so children whose parents hold a rural hukou would also have a rural hukou no matter where they were born. This apparatus for migratory control, which was once an effective means to ensure that China’s rural population stayed in the countryside to provide food and other resources for urban residents, has simply collapsed due to China’s need for cheap labour. In consequence, the hukou system is forcing migrant parents to leave their children behind when finding work, which is swelling the numbers of the lost generation.

What is the situation of left-behind children? A 2013 All-China Women’s Federation survey estimated that there were 61 million children under 16 who were left behind in the countryside, accounting for 38% of all rural children and 22% of all children in China. 32 million migrant children live with one parent, 20 million live with their grandparents, 6.5 million live with other friends or family, and 2.1 million live alone. A 2014 survey of 2,130 left-behind children conducted by a non-governmental organisation, On the Way to School, found that 15% of the children could go a whole year without seeing their parents. A similar survey in Shandong Province revealed that 75% of parents visited home only once a year, 20% returned home twice a year or more, whilst 5% visited home once every two to three years. Unfortunately, the rarity of parents coming home is most likely due to the fact that the majority of migrant workers do not have formal employment contracts and thus have little job security, in which leaving for home may result in the loss of their jobs to another migrant worker.

What are the vulnerabilities of left-behind children? A lack of parental care for children at young ages is affecting them on many levels from their physical wellbeing to their mental health. Shockingly, a survey by Zhejiang University revealed that the majority of guardians hardly talked to the children under their care, often leaving them to their own devices. As a result, nearly 50,000 children a year die from accidental injury in which the preponderance is left-behind children. In addition, abandoned children are the most vulnerable to kidnappings, forced labour, and sexual violence. Although there is limited official statistics or research on sexual violence against left-behind children, the increasing frequency of sexual assault indicates that it is a growing problem. In most cases, sexual violence against abandoned children are never reported since extended family members don’t pay enough attention and the children themselves are often too scared to report the abuse. The severity of the situation can be highlighted by the incident of a 10-year old girl who was raped by four different neighbours from January 2005 to September 2006, and was given money each time to keep quiet. The crime was only exposed when her grandfather had asked how she accumulated money.

Not only are left-behind children more susceptible to exploitation and physical harm but also deprivation and childhood neglect is increasing the likelihood of anti-social and criminal behaviour later in their lives. Various surveys conducted in numerous provinces found a distressing trend of guardian inability of satisfying the psychological and emotional needs of the children under their care. In consequence, migrant children are developing psychological or behavioural problems, which are having a startling correlation with China’s predicament of juvenile delinquents getting younger. The number of crimes committed by left-behind children account for 70% of all under-age crimes in the country. Amongst issues of criminal tendencies and anti-social behaviour, depression and child suicides are becoming a phenomenon that is causing media and public scrutiny. Although there is little academic research on suicidal behaviour among left-behind children, high-profile cases and anecdotal evidence indicate the acuteness of child abandonment. In June 2015 in Guizhou Province, a brother and three sisters who suffered critical depression committed suicide by drinking pesticide. The boy was 13 and his sisters were aged 9, 7, and 5.

Is life easier for migrant children who follow their parents to the cities or are born in urban areas? Migrant children who live in cities are faced with their own harsh realities that derive from draconian policies and regulations. For children who giddily follow their parents to supposed paradise in the megacities, low-income coupled with a rural hukou means they will be marginalised and deprived of equal access to education, social and medical welfare. Despite the Compulsory Education Law that mandates nine years of free education for all children, the amount of government funding for education is only based on the number of school age children of local residents and, as a result, urban governments are under no obligation to educate migrants. Subsequently, the only way migrant children can receive education is to pay exorbitant fees for entrance into public schools or by studying in substandard private schools exclusively for migrants, whereby the majority are unlicensed and run the risk of being shut down abruptly and demolished.

Due to China’s developing private economy and reduced spending on healthcare, public health instititutions are encouraged to behave like independent economic entities operating on a fee-for-service basis. According to China labour Bulletin, a simple influenza vaccination costs ¥200 (£22), which is a quarter of the minimum wage in Guangzhou. To further highlight the pressing concern of medical costs and class disparities, a survey of migrant children under 7-years old in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, found that 81% had never had a medical checkup.

Despite the awareness and public concern on the issue of left-behind children both in China and abroad, the Chinese government has only recently launched the first official general survey on left-behind children in April this year. In reiterating existing laws against child abandonment and reminding local authorities of their duty to protect vulnerable children, this attempt in reinforcing regulations and gathering statitistics will not do much to address the root causes. However, some cities have started to address the problem by providing migrants with social security, including pensions and other insurance; making it slightly easier for rural parents to bring up their children in an urban setting. Although there are talks about reforming the household registration system, any progress will be incredibly slow and selective and will likely keep the megacities of Beijing and Shanghai from being overwhelmed by the influx of migrant workers. In the meantime, it will be the children of migrants that will continue to bear the full brunt of the consequences.

Papa, mama, you are not with me now. Every time you go, you stay away for at least half a year. I miss you so much. Whenever I dream about you, I cry. When Grandpa hears me crying, he says your hearts are cold. But I know you are working hard in other places for me. One day, I passed a kiosk in my primary school and saw a sign that read “public phone.” I wished I could call, but I did not have your telephone number. All I could do was look at the phone and cry. Papa, mama, I am writing to ask for your telephone number. I will be as happy if you could give me a public telephone number where I can reach you. I could call you at an arranged time. The number of the public phone in my school’s kiosk is 7254897. I hope you can call me when you receive this letter. If I know your number, I can call you too. I long to hear your voices everyday! But this letter will not be sent because I don’t know where you are…  

A letter by Lu Shizheng, a primary school student in Shandong province, posted on the People’s Daily.