Just 11 days left before China’s Spring Festival celebrations for the Year of the Horse tragedy struck in Huayang Village, Anhui Province. A nine-year-old ‘left-behind child’, saddened by the knowledge that his parents wouldn’t be able to spend the Spring Festival with him this year because of pressure of work, hanged himself in the bathroom.
News of event spread like wildfire on Weibo, the biggest social media platform in China, generating heated discussions regarding the often neglected (or rather avoided) issue of the consequences of urbanisation in China. One remark seemed to sum up how people felt: “In my heart, this tragedy has highlighted the hidden problems of Chinese society nowadays, in a way that is more significant than those fancy political forums can ever compete with. He [this child] was one of us. The over-weighted shadow finally exploded after all these years.”
China, unlike most countries in the Global South, has moved from a socialist country directly to a quasi-capitalist one. Judging from the latest World Bank statistics, it has done so successfully. However such development has been achieved at a price, as the above event has shown us. There are almost 250m peasants, known as China’s “floating population”, living and working in large cities for employment, including this young boy’s parents.
This large floating population constitutes one of the biggest – and most negative – consequences of the rapid urbanisation in China. Often unregistered and largely unrecognised, this sector of the rapidly growing urban population lives and works without legitimate rights and social welfare.
According to China’s 2013 Census 53% of China’s 1.3bn population are urban residents, of which 245m come from the rural areas, living and working as migrant workers. About 80% of these migrants are work as unskilled labourers and only 20% of them are able to bring their families with them. As a result, 61m children – one in five in China – are left behind in rural China, staying with grandparents or other relatives. Their education suffers, as elderly relatives are often uneducated and cannot help with homework.
Another 29m children have accompanied their migrant worker parents to the cities, although according to the fifth national census, at least 10% of them have no schooling at all once they arrive. Often they fall into a criminal lifestyle; according to a work report on the sentencing of adolescents in Beijing, those who committed a crime and did not have an official hukou registration certificate made up 65.3% of all offenders. A similar report for Qingpu district people’s procuratorate in Shanghai found that 85.4% of adolescent criminals between 2009-11 had no Shanghai hukou.
Conditions are hard for young migrant workers, who have little opportunity to make a successful career; most of them have to save for a whole year just to go home for spring festival. The less fortunate ones are the silent majority who remain silent not because they do not have a voice, but because they are not empowered to speak.
However, while their contribution for the Chinese urbanisation is undeniable – migrant workers contributed 16% of China’s GDP growth over the past 20 years – but is often neglected. Despite the State Council’s promulgation of policies concerning migrant workers’ legitimate rights and interests, including their rights to getting on-time payment, social insurance, and education for their children in cities, the problems remain.
In addition to the institutional and official level, there remains a tension between the urban residents and migrant workers, which is constantly creating more divisions and potential conflicts between different social groups. In some big cities, for example in Shanghai, local residents often express their relief when migrant worker return to their home villages during the Spring Festival. For the locals, the city can “finally retrieve its tranquility”, though it is these migrant workers who sustain many essential aspects of day-to-day city life, including street cleaning, catering services, domestic assistance, medical care, and the forever-ongoing housing constructions.
At the same time, the fact that many migrants choose to leave behind their family in order to make a living in big cities further indicates another issue relating to the uneven development between urban and rural areas: the massive flow of rural migrants directly challenges Chinese socialist modes of state control, and raises structural problem resulting from urban planning that need to be addressed.
An urban lifestyle has been a much-desired life goal for over three decades in China, ever since Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reform. But government has barely taken into account the demands of the larger rural population of China, including the migrant workers living and working in big cities. It is often easier for the public to blame the ‘irresponsible’ migrant parents for problems that befall their children than to question the reasons behind such tragic events.
It is difficult, and yet more important, to realise the imbalanced socio-economic development and for the government to address this problem. In his first public speech as general secretary on 15 November 2012, President Xi Jinping pledged to improve Chinese citizens’ lives by offering “better schooling, more stable jobs, more satisfying incomes, more reliable social security, higher levels of health care, more comfortable housing conditions, and a more beautiful environment”.
However, these goals continue to elude the hundreds of millions of migrant workers in urban China who do not yet have stable jobs, social welfare and health care, proper housing and quality education and care for their children. There has been some change, with smaller cities relaxing residency requirements to allow children to settle with their migrant parents, but the bigger cities are unlikely to adopt similar measures.
In some regions local administrations have begun to offer support to some children forced to live with elderly relatives. Baofeng county in central China’s Henan province, for example, has begun to provide daycare for up to 1,000 left-behind children during their summer vacations.
Nine-year-old Ma Liping, who has not seen her parents for two years, lives with her 74-year-old grandfather and usually herds sheep with him in the mornings, but is now benefiting from the new scheme. In Shanglin county, in south China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, the local community runs summer camps where children are able to contact their parents by telephone.
However, serious problems remain. Research on more than 300 left-behind children between January and March this year and presented at the 21st International Federation of Psychotherapy World Congress in Shanghai in May showed that more than half the sample had behavioural and emotional disorders. Depression and paranoia are the top problems for boys between 12 and 16, the survey found, although girls between 6 and 11 exhibited the “most complex problem” profiles, with more than a third reporting depressive behaviour.
According to Zheng Yi, a pediatrician at the Beijing Anding Hospital of Capital Medical University, who led the research: “We found that the absence of awareness for mental health problems, and the shortness of mental health service providers to be important factors. Besides that, many parents tend to emphasise physical health over mental health. They ignore the importance of emotional bonding to children’s growth. In the face of mental health problems, they have no idea about where to turn and seek help.”
This tragedy just before this year’s Spring Festival highlights the need for rethinking China’s social and economic transformation, in particular the aims and methods of late socialist governance under new social and economic conditions. Chinese Lunar New Year should be the best of times, when families gather around the dinner table to watch their beloved New Year’s Gala; instead, for many it is a sad reminder of their family’s painful separation, with the hope that the new year will bring better fortune into their lives.