China's 'left behind children': It's not what you think

The Western media has recently been reporting on the children left behind by their parents in China. The truth is, it's not out of choice, but necessity.

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The Independent Online

Lately there have been stories in the press about China’s ‘left behind children’; the issue most recently being covered by the BBC and released to coincide with China’s Mid-Autumn festival and national holiday.

Unfortunately, this seems to me to be another way for the Western media to criticise and discredit Chinese society based on the West’s principals, understanding and social norms when they really have very little knowledge or comprehension of Chinese culture and practices.

It seems to me that the Western media tends to twist any story related to China, in this case, a statistic from 2010 published by the All China Women’s Federation estimating that there are 58 million children, almost all in the countryside, growing up without one, or both of their parents.

This figure has been used to support a story not about hard working parents leaving home to support their family, thus creating a better future for their children, but instead a piece about Chinese parents abandoning their children; making China seem like a crass, insensitive, uncaring society of emotionless machines.

Many parents are forced to make the heart-breaking decision to leave their children in their countryside hometowns in order to find better paid work in the industrial and booming cities.

There is a vast urban/rural divide and in many poorer provinces there just isn’t the industry to support the large population, where increasingly, farm labourer jobs are being replaced by modern technology.

These parents work around the clock, in the cities, without holidays. It is rarely possible for most migrant workers to take their children with them due to the residency, or hukuo, policy in place. Once the migrant workers’ children leave their place of birth they lose their rights to subsidised education, health care, and other basic services, thus rendering the option of taking migrant children to the cities unaffordable and for many, impossible.

Parents may only have the time and money to return home to their children once a year, if that. This fast development from an agricultural based society to an industrial one was naturally going to cause social problems and transitions.

I’m not denying that China’s left behind children is a social problem, but we need to take a closer look at our own society before we throw stones and judge others. There are plenty of children left behind by their parents in the UK.

Just this week David Lammy MP made clear the link between knife crime and single parent families. Even suggesting that most young people involved in the London Riots last year were from single parent households, many with absent fathers. David Lammy said “The moral factors and the values of this country have completely changed significantly.”

In the case of a lot of China’s “left behind children”, many of them have parents who sacrifice their family life to provide for their children’s future. They actually want the best for their children – that is why they leave their backwater towns in search of financial gains. The study by the All China Women’s Federation reports that nearly 80 per cent of these children are cared for by their grandparents. Now I cannot account for the other 20 per cent but in general, far from being unloved, the majority of these children are brought up around their family in a stable, loving home. Obviously children are going to say that they miss their parents if they are directly asked by a reporter, it would be cruel not to, but this does not mean they are deprived.

When it comes to Chinese social issues, the Western media seems to go in cycles, for a while the emphasis was on the social problems caused by the single child families and how this would affect the spoilt children, or ‘little emperors’. Especially since reports that many young Chinese criminals now are themselves ‘left behind children’. However, is the media blaming child delinquency unnecessarily on this ‘new’ social phenomenon without considering other environmental factors such as the increase and accessibility of technology? Arguably, this ultimately exposes them to modern messages, opportunities, material possessions and teenage angst.

Furthermore, in Chinese culture it has been long acceptable, if not common practise in society, for grandparents to look after young children while parents are working. Chinese families are very tight knit, with parents relying on their children to support them in their later years; especially the older generations who had no formal pensions. Therefore grandparents tended to live in the family home, supported by their children, watching over young grandchildren.

The iron rice bowl of China, a guarantee of lifetime employment in state-run enterprises, is long gone and as a result a different emphasis is placed on money in China, a country with no social safety net, compared to that of the UK.

China Daily covered this story in May of this year, they reported that “Noted sociologist Wang Kaiyu said the remedy to these children’s plight is to narrow the urban-rural gap and create more jobs in the countryside to keep parents at home.” It added that Beijing University professor Lu Jiehua suggests “cities grant migrant children equal access to public schools, medication and other social security services.”

China’s left behind children is not an ideal solution for any family, rather a decision borne out of necessity. Chinese culture now places a heavy emphasis on money; no money equals no happiness.

The younger generation have a new meme, one that will have previous generations rolling in their graves: “no car, no house, no wife”.

Migrant workers have helped to build the Chinese dream, but it will be a little while longer until they get to reap the benefits and improve their standard of emotional and physical living.