‘Left-Behind Children’: The Price of China’s Industrial Revolution

It is no secret that China’s economy has surged in recent years. They have experienced an industrial revolution that is nothing short of remarkable. China had accomplished economically in a few decades what it takes some nations nearly 100 years. A fun-fact, if you will, that illustrates just how absurdly incredible this feat is: In just five short years 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,” the BBC reports.

However, China’s ever-climbing industrialization has been built on the backs of internal migrant workers who flock from the countryside to work assembly lines, operate construction machinery, and the like. But their absence leaves a gaping hole: when these adults move and live in the cities for these jobs, what happens to the estimated 60 million children left behind?

An estimated 60 million children. 60 million children living with the devastation of life without their families – that equates to a heartbreaking 1 in 5 Chinese children.

The BBC’s John Sudworth travels to the Chinese countryside to meet with some of the ‘left-behind’. In Guizhou province, located in south-central China, he finds 14-year-old Tao Lan and her 11-year-old brother, Tao Jinkun.

The two live alone while their parents live more than 1000 miles away, only able to return once a year to visit their children. Sadly, Lan and Jinkun’s situation is not uncommon; there are thought to be over two million left-behind children living alone, without support from any relatives.

In his interview with Tao Lan, Mr. Sudworth comments, “If you’ve had a bad day at school it must be very hard not to be able to talk to your mum and dad about it.”

He recounts her reply; “I can’t tell them. Mum and Dad live a hard life, I don’t want them to worry about me,” she says with tears in her eyes.

With a growing public concern on the issue of childhood neglect in the region, China’s state-run media has been granted permission to speak to the matter – in a way that only a Communist-led country can. And so, the Chinese government recently issued a new directive that restates existing laws against child abandonment as well as reminds local authority of their obligation to protect these children.

The CCP also announced, for the appearance of taking action, that it will be conducting a nationwide census in an effort to gather a correct account of the number of left behind children.

But according to Mr. Sudworth, the truth it is that a collection of further data and the government’s “efforts” to heighten enforcement will not do much to address the root cause of the problem.

Part of the issue is the way in which migrant-worker status works. As a registered migrant-worker, a person may work in any place of their choosing, but not without a catch. The catch is that person and his or her spouse and children can only have access to their welfare benefits – including access to health care and education – in their home village.

These rigid and heavily monitored rules serve to help China manage its population flows as well as to discourage other industrial revolutions elsewhere.

There is some talk about reforming the registration process, but it will be slow and choosy, and is likely to prevent super cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and others to be within reach of many families in the rural villages of China’s countryside, the BBC writes.

The Chinese government’s admittance that the problem of left behind children is urgent, while seemingly a step in the right direction, could simply be a fabricated claim just to appease national and international concern.

Talk is not enough, China must walk-the-walk and be accountable for the devastation that these families – especially the left-behind children – endure. Childhood neglect should not be ignored.  

The BBC provides several video segments of more heart wrenching tales like that of Tao Lan and her brother. Their stories can be heard here.



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