Emo­tional void

Chil­dren left be­hind in ru­ral ar­eas lead lone­some lives

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By SATARUPA BHATTACHARJYA in Fuyang, An­hui prov­ince satarupa@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Spring Fes­ti­val will be cel­e­brated by Chi­nese at home and abroad in two weeks. A good num­ber of the coun­try’s more than 200 mil­lion mi­grant work­ers will then re­turn home to smaller cities and vil­lages, bear­ing gifts for the chil­dren whom they have left be­hind in their pur­suit of jobs in big­ger cities.

A cen­tral gov­ern­ment sur­vey re­leased in Novem­ber sug­gests China now has 9 mil­lion chil­dren at or un­der the age of 16 whose par­ents work away from their domi­ciles. In 2013, the All China Women Fed­er­a­tion, a gov­ern­ment-backed agency had said the coun­try had 60 mil­lion such chil­dren un­der the age of 18.

An­a­lysts say the new sur­vey’s method­olo- gy is dif­fer­ent from the pre­vi­ous one in terms of the chil­dren’s age as well as the cat­e­go­riza­tion of ab­sent par­ents. Some so­ci­ol­o­gists ex­pect an ac­tual de­cline in the num­ber in com­ing years, with signs of fam­ily mi­gra­tions al­ready in sight.

But a visit ear­lier this week to East China’s An­hui prov­ince, which is among the top in­land ar­eas for out­ward mi­gra­tion, showed that on the other side of the coun­try’s eco­nomic boom lie vil­lages and small towns that con­tinue to bat­tle a deep emo­tional void.

In ru­ral patches of Fuyang, a large mu­nic­i­pal-level city lo­cated at more than 200 kilo­me­ters to the north­west of pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal He­fei, most res­i­dents are el­derly peo­ple and their young grand­chil­dren. Here, the work­ing age pop­u­la­tion is sim­ply miss­ing.

Hun­dreds of empty houses etched across farm­lands pro­vide fur­ther tes­ti­mony to it.

In the Houyuan neigh­bor­hood of Wuli village, for in­stance, more than half of the 22 house­holds have chil­dren in the care of their grand­par­ents. And, in ad­ja­cent Dongzhou, of the set­tle­ment’s 65 res­i­dents, the ma­jor­ity face a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials es­ti­mate 2.8 mil­lion peo­ple from Fuyang’s pop­u­la­tion of 10 mil­lion live in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try.

Guo Lin, chair­woman of the Fuyang Women’s Fed­er­a­tion, a lo­cal body, says the mi­grants mostly move to wealth­ier prov­inces such as Zhe­jiang and Jiangsu, also in the east, and Shang­hai, work­ing low-level jobs in man­u­fac­tur­ing, ser­vices, con­struc­tion and other sec­tors. As a re­sult, 179,000 chil­dren un­der the age of 18 have been left be­hind here, she says.

The term used to de­scribe such chil­dren emerged from the so-called left-be­hind wives whose hus­bands had mi­grated from An­hui and other prov­inces such as Sichuan, He­nan, Guizhou, Hu­nan and Hubei to mainly coastal cities in the 1990s. In the fol­low­ing decade, the women them­selves started to mi­grate.

A large num­ber of fe­male do­mes­tic helpers in Bei­jing came from An­hui back then.

“The 2016 sur­vey con­sid­ers the le­gal work­ing age of young Chi­nese and of fam­i­lies where both par­ents have mi­grated,” Guo says of the dif­fer­ences be­tween the new cen­tral gov­ern­ment study and ACWF’s 2013 sur­vey that counted such chil­dren even when one par­ent was miss­ing.

So­ci­ol­o­gists have pre­vi­ously also stud­ied mi­gra­tion pat­terns in the ru­ral reaches of rel­a­tively af­flu­ent places such as Chongqing and Guang­dong prov­ince.

Hol­i­day-edi­tion par­ents

In the Houyuan area of Fuyang’s Wuli village, Zhou Peisheng and his wife, Liu Guilan, have been rais­ing their grand­daugh­ter since the past three years. The cou­ple’s

daugh­ter and son-in-law are re­spec­tively a wait­ress and a chef at a restau­rant in Nan­jing in Jiangsu prov­ince.

“It’s no trou­ble tak­ing care of her, she isn’t naughty,” Zhou says of his grand­daugh­ter, Ni Yut­ing, aged 9.

Her par­ents keep long work­ing hours, which is why Ni can’t live with them in the city of Nan­jing, he says.

Ni wants to see her par­ents more of­ten and for longer pe­ri­ods than just dur­ing the weekly an­nual hol­i­days. She also wants to know “what gifts they will bring for me”.

In Zhou’s neigh­bor­hood, most work­ing age cou­ples have mi­grated to Hangzhou in Zhe­jiang prov­ince, where the G20 Sum­mit was held last year.

Ear­lier, Zhou was a crop farmer who worked part-time at ru­ral con­struc­tion sites in Fuyang. To­day, he ap­pears among the bet­ter off peo­ple in his lo­cal­ity, with in­come com­ing in from grow­ing veg­eta­bles. His daugh­ter sends money home as well.

For Song Jin­lan, a 55-year-old res­i­dent of Dongzhou area in the same Wuli village, life is slightly harder. The widow has been look­ing af­ter her grand­son since his birth six years ago. Her son drives trucks in Hangzhou that carry con­struc­tion ma­te­rial and her daugh­ter-in-law works at a tex­tile unit in that city.

Her son sends her 1,000 yuan ($144) a month on av­er­age, Song says. In ad­di­tion, she earns some money from sell­ing corns and other crops that she grows.

In 2015, Fuyang’s per capita ru­ral dis­pens­able in­come was 9,001 yuan on av­er­age a year.

Song’s son and daugh­ter-in-law come home ev­ery Chi­nese New Year and stay for less than two weeks.

This year the cou­ple want to ar­rive ahead of the Spring Fes­ti­val week to hold a cer­e­mony to cut a few strands of long hair their son has been wear­ing since early child­hood as a tra­di­tional sym­bol of good for­tune. But so far, Song says, her son hasn’t got the ex­tra leave he de­sires.

“With­out his par­ents around, I some­times feel help­less, es­pe­cially when the kid falls sick,” she says point­ing to her grand­son, Zhou Jun­hao, aged 6.

In the town of Xihu, at some dis­tance from Wuli village, for­mer schoolteacher Du Feng­cai and his wife have raised two grand­sons in the past 20 years.

Du’s son, a long­time mi­grant who now runs a ho­tel in the touristy city of Dali, in South­west China’s Yun­nan prov­ince, can’t take his 13-yearold younger child along be­cause of their lim­ited op­tions for school ed­u­ca­tion there, Du says. His older grand­son, aged 22, has joined his par­ents’ business in Dali.

Du urges a re­form of the coun­try’s house­hold regis­tra­tion sys­tem or

hukou to in­crease the ed­u­ca­tional prospects of the chil­dren of mi­grant work­ers in host cities.

While the first nine years of ed­u­ca­tion are com­pul­sory in China, the ex­ist­ing hukou sys­tem throws some chal­lenges at mi­grants.

The 2016 gov­ern­ment sur­vey makes a men­tion of the re­form, too.

Last mile

While at least 8 mil­lion grand­par­ents form the back­bone of sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion par­ent­ing in China to­day, this ag­ing group with lim­ited re­sources at their dis­posal, are of­ten un­able to pro­vide the emo­tional sup­port that their grand­chil­dren, es­pe­cially teenagers, need.

“Some prob­lems of left-be­hind chil­dren are be­ing solved with the coun­try’s eco­nomic progress, but their phys­i­o­log­i­cal lives still need at­ten­tion,” says Lu Shizhen, deputy chair­woman, China Youth and Chil­dren’s Re­search As­so­ci­a­tion, a Bei­jing-based af­fil­i­ate of the China Youth Univer­sity of Po­lit­i­cal stud­ies.

Lu em­pha­sizes long-term pro­fes­sional coun­sel­ing not just for the af­fected chil­dren but also for their pri­mary care­givers.

The chil­dren of mi­grant cou­ples are “de facto or­phans”, she says, adding that a mix of eco­nomic and so­cial rea­sons has trig­gered the sit­u­a­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the new sur­vey, a per­cent­age of the 9 mil­lion chil­dren largely live with­out adult su­per­vi­sion on a daily ba­sis, ef­fec­tively forc­ing them to stay alone.

In an ap­palling case last year, po­lice re­ported the deaths of four sib­lings, aged 5 to 14, in Guizhou, among the coun­try’s poor­est prov­inces. In a “sui­cide note” be­fore they died, the el­dest said their mother who worked in a dif­fer­ent place, hadn’t vis­ited them in a year and a half.

Other than ab­ject lone­li­ness, un­su­per­vised chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar are at risk of sex­ual abuse.

A few years ago, 19 cases of sex­ual as­sault on girls un­der the age of 18 were reg­is­tered in He­nan prov­ince, China Youth Daily re­ported.

With the ma­jor­ity of “left-be­hind” chil­dren liv­ing in vil­lages, there’s also a need to in­clude more women in coun­try­side Party com­mit­tees, Lu says.

Last year, the State Coun­cil, China’s cab­i­net, is­sued a set of guide­lines for lo­cal gov­ern­ments to fol­low, in­clud­ing on set­ting up more child wel­fare cen­ters across the coun­try.

“How cen­tral poli­cies per­co­late down to the grass­roots level is the key ques­tion,” Lu says.

That’s where the real im­ple­men­ta­tion is nec­es­sary.

ZHU LIXIN / CHINA DAILY

Zhou Jun­hao, 6, lives with his grand­mother, Song Jin­lan, a widow, in Fuyang’s Wuli village, An­hui prov­ince. Zhou’s par­ents live and work in Hangzhou and send about 1,000 yuan a month to Song for child care and other ex­penses.

ZHU LIXIN / CHINA DAILY

Song Jin­lan (left) says she feels most des­per­ate when her grand­son (cen­ter) falls sick.

From left: Ni Yut­ing and her grand­mother; Du Wenbo (mid­dle) and his grand­par­ents; a “left-be­hind” girl and her grand­fa­ther in ru­ral and semi-ur­ban ar­eas of Fuyang, An­hui prov­ince.

PHO­TOS BY ZHU LIXIN / CHINA DAILY

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