Wang Tingting last saw her parents nearly two years ago, but now that they are reunited, no one knows what to say to one another. Finally, Su Taoying, Tingting’s mother, clasps her 12-year-old daughter’s hand and says, ruefully, “Next time I see you, you will be taller than me.” As they smile, the family resemblance is striking. And yet for the past five years they have not really been a family.
Wang Tingting is one of tens of millions of children in rural China growing up without their parents – parents who have decamped to the cities in order to earn a better living. Some of these children are cared for by their grandparents, but others are handed over to foster centres. Three years ago, as she was about to enter junior high school, Tingting’s parents moved her from her grandparents’ home to a foster centre in Gufeng, their remote village in the eastern province of Anhui. Nobody here found that strange: fewer than half of the children in Gufeng live with their parents, a situation repeated across several provinces in the heavily populated southern half of China.
The Chinese government estimates that there are 58 million “left-behind children”, which accounts for almost 20 per cent of all the children in China, and close to half of all children in the countryside. Their lives illustrate the price China is paying for president Hu Jintao’s goal of building a “moderately well-off society”.
Under Mao Zedong, countless families were ripped apart. Mao sent millions of parents into labour camps and their children to the countryside; he forced families to abandon the stoves in their homes and to use communal kitchens and dorms. Even so, Mao failed, ultimately, to destroy the family as the basic cell of Chinese society.
Today, what the dictator was unable to accomplish with force is being realised instead by the lure of money. It is 33 years since the Communist party embarked on a course of economic reform, under “paramount leader” Deng Xiaoping, and increasing numbers of Chinese are choosing to live permanently separated from their children as they search for a better life.
This is a social experiment on an unprecedented scale. Professor Ye Jingzhong, a sociologist at China Agricultural University, has conducted extensive research into the issues raised. “The migrant worker phenomenon has led to separation of families in other countries, most notably the Philippines, but that’s on a much smaller scale, and mostly cross-border,” he says. “We have to acknowledge that our development model is too much focused on GDP growth, and this is the fallout.”
This week, China celebrated lunar New Year, its biggest festival, during which families are expected to gather. Across the country, towns and villages such as Gufeng (or “Lonely Peak”), where Tingting was born, were filling up with returning migrant workers. For most of the year, 80 per cent of Gufeng’s working-age population is absent, the majority 230 miles (and six hours) away in Shanghai, or in Zhejiang, an affluent coastal province further south. Others are in Hefei, the provincial capital, a three-hour bus ride away.
Gufeng sits among lush hills covered with dense fir and bamboo forests. The quiet, narrow valleys in between are sprinkled with ancient mud farmhouses and newer, two-storey brick and cement dwellings, paid for by remittances sent from villagers working in the cities. Now, despite the freezing temperatures and a constant drizzle of snow, the market on the village’s main street was thronging with shoppers, umbrellas in one hand and vegetable baskets in the other, preparing for the biggest dinner of the calendar, and catching up on a year’s worth of village gossip.
Tingting’s parents were in Gufeng, too, but their visit was inspired not by New Year but by her paternal grandmother’s funeral. “Normally we don’t come back much,” says Su Taoying. “It’s so far, and we are so busy.” The 40-year-old works as a cleaning lady in Shanghai, where Wang Jiacai, her 42-year-old husband, is a construction worker. Both say they will lose their jobs if they take holidays without good reason.
When I first meet Tingting at the foster centre, I ask her what she likes best about her mum and what they talk about when they are together. She gives a blank stare. The girl feels her parents have little time for her, even during this short visit. “They are over at my uncle’s and keep talking to the relatives and the neighbours,” she says. “I sit next to them and listen.” Tingting seems nervous. When she frowns, the slight dimples on her smooth forehead remind one of the tired and shy expression on her mother’s face. That afternoon, when Tingting takes me to meet her parents, at the house where she was born, mother and daughter stand as close together as they can, clasping each other’s hands. When her mother looks at her, Tingting suddenly bursts into tears.
The Wang family’s two-storey house looks unfinished, with gaping window holes on the second floor. The rooms there can’t be reached because the staircase has not been built yet. Tingting’s father tore down part of the ancestral home’s mud walls and added this building 15 years ago, before he married Su. “But then the money was used up, and I went to Shanghai to work, so I have never lived in this house,” he says. As he talks, he recognises the irony of the story and his melancholic face breaks into a quick laugh.
Wang apologises for the fact that the house is not presently much of a home at all. The main room is empty, save for a square wooden dining table with four narrow benches. In the huge, dark kitchen, Wang’s 77-year-old father squats next to the oven for warmth. Now that his wife has died, he will live here alone.
After Tingting’s mother left for the city, five years ago, her grandparents raised her in this home. But when the time came for her to attend junior high school, Tingting’s parents sent her to the foster centre set up 10 years ago by Wang Zhi, a retired local government official who had become concerned about the number of neglected children roaming the streets at night. The centre has since housed more than 1,000 children; at the moment, 80 children live here, sleeping six or eight to a dorm room and eating together in one big dining hall. They walk to and from school together, singing, in rows of two, led by old Mr Wang.
For many parents, transferring their children to a place that undeniably resembles an orphanage was not a decision born of neglect; it was the best choice available.
Zhang Zhongtao, 47, has left her home in Gufeng to work in Shanghai. Her 15-year-old son, Li Guangyao, has joined her there for Chinese New Year. Like Wang Tingting, Guangyao lives at Wang Zhi’s foster centre. “We had to do that, because otherwise the children turn bad,” says Zhang. “They hang out on the street and go to the internet café.”
“Not everything is negative about left-behind children – they learn earlier to be independent, which is a good thing,” says Deng Li, director of the Children’s Work Department of the All-China Women’s Federation, which leads a government working group on left-behind children. “But you can’t deny that they suffer. These children tend to have difficulty in opening up emotionally. They run a higher risk of getting hurt due to lack of supervision. We also find that they run a higher risk of getting involved in illegal activities as teenagers.”
And yet the government estimates that the number of children left behind by their parents will grow before it starts to decrease. “This is a stage in China’s development,” says Deng.
The largest numbers live in the populous provinces of the central and southern half of the country: Sichuan, Anhui, Henan, Hunan and Jiangxi. The government expects that migration patterns will change as economic development trickles down from the coast and some inland regions see more industrialisation and urbanisation. “There will be more jobs at home in some of these five provinces, so people will start migrating from even poorer and more remote provinces,” says Deng. The result, she says, will be that “there may be fewer left-behind children in some places, but there will be more in others”.
Charitable projects aimed at supporting the children are mushrooming in many parts of the country. Wang Zhi’s foster centre in Gufeng has attracted donations from local government and business leaders. “These children need not just material goods, they also need to learn,” says Wang. “And they need to learn not just knowledge from books, but also how to be a decent human being.”
But while such support as Wang Zhi’s is vital, it is a drop in the ocean. “Caring is good, but it treats the symptoms without addressing the root cause of the problem,” says Ye Jingzhong. He struggles to conceal his anger as he accuses Beijing of having few policies to target the problem. He also bemoans the lack of consensus about its importance. “Do we really have to discuss the significance of family in the upbringing of a human being?” he asks.
Academics, as well as local government officials, agree that the reason so many migrant workers leave their children behind is that it is almost impossible to raise them in the city. Other than the financial imperative to seek work, there are complex restrictions in China’s household registration, education and health systems that ultimately affect where it is best to bring up a child.
Guangyao’s family – like Tingting’s parents – insist they had no choice but to separate from their son. “We used to be rice farmers, but the income from that is just not enough to raise a child,” says Zhang, who works in Shanghai as a cleaner at Cash Box, a large karaoke chain. Her husband, Li Xiaolong, is a parking fee collector. The couple’s salaries are just enough to cover the Rmb1,000 (£94) monthly rent for the two windowless rooms they inhabit, and the Rmb10,000 (£940) a year they need for Guangyao’s education.
When the couple felt that their own parents were losing control of their grandson, they brought Guangyao to Shanghai, where he attended elementary school for two years. But continuing at junior high school in Shanghai would have created insurmountable problems for Guangyao later in life. China requires children to take university entrance exams in the place where their household registration is, and that registration cannot easily be changed, especially from a rural to a big city address. Since the content and grading of those exams differs by region, a migrant worker child who attends senior high school in Shanghai would have almost no chance of passing the university entrance exam in his or her home province. (The same is true for senior high school entrance exams.) Most migrant worker families must therefore send their children back home when they reach junior high school age, if not before.
The practical difficulties extend beyond education. Medical insurance for rural residents is often much more limited than for those citizens with an urban registration, and it rarely covers treatment provided in the city.
And yet for many younger migrants, life in the city is a choice – one they are not ready to give up in order to have a family.
Li Xiaoming is 27 and works on an assembly line at Flextronics, the Nasdaq-listed electronics producer, in the southern manufacturing hub of Zhuhai. Xiaoming, who is from Hunan province, 560 miles away, took a few months off work in late 2009 to have a baby, but has left her one-year-old daughter in her mother’s care back home, and is back in her job. She has big plans – both for herself and her one-year-old daughter.
Would she prefer to spend more time at home with her child? “I prefer to think men and women are equal now. I think if I went back [to Hunan], it might feel good now, but I would grow dissatisfied with myself and my life after a while.”
Li hopes to take advantage of the training opportunities at Flextronics to get a better-paid job. And for her daughter? She expects to spend a lot of money on her music lessons: “I hope she will become a pop star. That requires a lot of training.”
Li Guangyao’s mother also invests her hopes in the next generation. “Of course I think, sometimes, that it’s unfortunate that we can’t be together, but we’re giving him the best we can,” says Zhang Zhongtao. “We’re giving him an education. Compared with what we had to go through, his life is paradise already.”
Her son does not dispute that. With a playful grin, he says that life is good. Back in Gufeng, Guangyao enjoys playing basketball, and at night he loves telling silly jokes with his roommates in the dark, after the lights go out in the foster centre’s dorm. But the teenager is thinking ahead. As he sits on a stool in his parents’ dark and chilly room in Shanghai, he says: “When I grow up, I want to be an engineer and develop materials to make better house insulation.”
Kathrin Hille is the FT’s Beijing correspondent
One child’s story
One thing Wang Li still has in common with her mother is that they both live in a dorm. The 14-year-old shares a room with five other girls at Wang Zhi’s foster home in her native Anhui province, in the east of the country. Her mother lives in a dorm room with seven other women at the electronics factory where she works in Shanghai, more than 230 miles away.
Li moved into the foster home after she left primary school. Her mother had gone to work in Shanghai when Li was a toddler and her father followed when she entered primary school, leaving Li in the care of her illiterate grandparents. The grandparents, who work in the fields all day, gave her love and warm meals, but could supply little else. Li says that when she entered junior high school her parents felt she needed assistance with her homework, so they moved her into the foster home.
Li was desperately homesick after she moved to the foster home, but worse was to come. Two months after she arrived, her mother called during lunch break to tell her that she and her father were getting divorced. “Many children in the village had spread rumours before, that my mother was a loose woman because she had gone to the big city, but I’d always defended her,” says Li. “It felt like they’d been right all along.”
However, Li survived those troubles and today she is a self-assured teenager. “We are more independent and sensible than some other children of our age,” she says. Sitting on her dorm bed with two of her roommates, she says she wouldn’t want to live any other way. “There is little to talk about with my mum when she visits,” she says. “My friends are the most important people in my life now.”
One parent’s story
Fang Yaojin speaks to his son on Tuesdays. The 39-year-old works as a kitchen helper in an upmarket restaurant on the outskirts of Shanghai; his wife, Yu Yingmei, is a waitress in the same restaurant. Their 13-year-old son, Yu Jun, lives in a foster home in a remote valley in Anhui.
“I can call him once a week,” says Fang. “I ask him about progress at school; if his grades have gone down, I tell him to improve.”
Fang, who has lived in Shanghai since he was 21, says he and his wife have no option but to live apart from their son. “The income from farming is not enough to properly raise a child. Our level of education is too low; I hope that my son can enjoy a better education.”
Yu Jun spent the first few years of his life with his grandparents, before joining his parents in Shanghai, where he completed six years of elementary school. Last year, they sent him back to the village to attend junior high school, and he moved into the foster home.
Fang used to be a cook, but last year he injured his right arm and hand in a workplace accident, so now he can perform only menial odd jobs in the kitchen. He earns less money and receives fewer benefits. His broad, dark face seems out of place in the modern, steel-clad kitchen, and he is afraid to touch anything he is not supposed to. At Chinese New Year, when once he would go home to visit his son, Fang must stay behind because the restaurant is so busy.
“I am sad that we can’t see him this year, but this is the best we can do,” says Fang. “My son is a good student. I hope he can attend military school and become a soldier, so he can make a contribution to society when he grows up.”