Amid a faltering rural economy, millions of Chinese children are left to fend for themselves as parents leave in search of work


At around 11:30 p.m., on June 9 2015, Zhang Qifu, a peasant in Guizhou province, China, was woken up by whimpering, feeble cries coming from his neighbour’s house. Dashing through the pouring rain, Zhang only found a 13-year-old boy slumped on the road with saliva dripping from his mouth. Three girls, aged five to nine, also lay on the bare ground. Vomit remained on their lips. Four bowls and an empty bottle of ‘Didiwei’ pesticide stood inside the house. The police reported that Zhang Qigang and his three sisters committed suicide. The death note drafted by the left-behind children explained why: ‘I vowed not to live more than 15 years. Death has been my longing for a long time’.

Although the neatly written suicide note is suspected to be a forgery, it exposes us to the plight of China’s left-behind children. Coined as ‘orphans with parents’ by the media, left-behind children are rural kids whose parents migrate to cities for work. According to Unicef, the number of left-behind children now reaches 70 million, accounting for 25 per cent of the total child population. This phenomenon erodes the Chinese practise of intensive parenting. The responsibility of raising the children falls on the shoulders of frail and often uneducated grandparents. Left-behind children might reunite with their parents once a year. For Yang Xianle it has been even longer. The last time he saw his parents was four years ago. He has little contact with them and says, ‘I have only phoned my parents twice or three times … In 10 years’.

Haggard, Yang Xinlong mourns the decision to leave his daughter behind: ‘we have thought of bringing her with us, but we couldn’t afford it’. Yang spells out the heartrending fate facing 300 million migrant workers in China. Under the current household registration system, the hukou system, migrant workers are classified as rural residents. In cities, they normally earn two-thirds less than their urban counterparts. The hukou system also denies the rural population access to state benefits outside their hometown, let alone subsidised education for their children in cities. To be educated, Yang’s daughter Fuxiu would have to enrol in an expensive private school for migrant children. The tuition fee costs around RMB$3,000 (£315; US$456) per semester, which is above Yang’s monthly wage. Yang weighs everything up and sighs, ‘we have no choice’ he says, under the present conditions.

These circumstances, however, are partly the result of a state-controlled acquisition system. Despite the soaring GDP growth, the rural economy in the inland provinces has been faltering since the 1990s. The price of crops plummeted by 30 per cent in 1997. Peasants like Mr and Mrs Yang are scattered across provinces, preventing them from bargaining a fair selling price collectively. In contrast, the acquisition organ is the main buyer in the market. As a result, this department dominates the market crop prices.

Even though peasants grow more crops, they do not enjoy a higher sales revenue. Their income remains static. Worse still, the cost of farming equipment has increased out of proportion. Coupled with excessive tax demands collected by corrupt county officials, these circumstances force the peasants to leave their families behind and work as second-class labourers in cities.

However much the parents want to stay behind, they cannot. Migrant worker Yang Jie tells how much his youngest daughter misses him: ‘every time we leave, she wails … She walked us a long way, approximately 1 kilometre’.

Yang’s little daughter cries for a good reason. Back in her village, she will have to cook, farm and feed the animals on her own, all year round.

Left-behind children also suffer from stark physical dangers. On August 4, 2015, the 15-year-old Zhang Yunyu was raped and killed by her cousins, aged between 17 and 20. Her 12-year-old brother was stabbed to death. Prior to that, Zhang had already been sexually assaulted by her neighbour. In unreported cases, more heinous crimes might have happened.

Yang Yianle weathered the storm but emptiness fills his heart. Of course he cannot wait to see his parents again. However, he will never leave behind his family and feels obliged to look after his younger sister. ‘I will not leave. If we are to leave, we leave together’.

The problem of China’s left-behinds is the dilemma of migrant workers amid a faltering rural economy. ‘Every time when they promise to come back, I will wait expectantly. If they don’t, I will be very disappointed’, Fuxiu says, plunging into silence. Fuxiu expresses her longing in neat handwriting on the tan, wooden door. ‘Mama, I miss you very much. I am thinking of you. Are you well?’