A girl walks up a flight of stairs with her mother in Beijing, China, on Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. Chinese President Xi Jinping relaxed China's family-planning policy last year by allowing couples to have two children if either parent is an only child. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

A quarter of the population of Shanghai is about to leave town. Many have already gone. They are part of the world’s largest annual human migration, the trek that takes Chinese migrants back home for lunar new year— where many will see their children for the only time this year.

The rest of the year, while their parents are working their tails off in the big city, 70m “left-behind kids” stay at home — either with Grandma, or with just Mum or Dad; or they are at boarding school, often without any adult supervision.

These are the casualties of the Chinese dream: kids whose emotions, nutrition and even their very stature can be stunted by the absence of parents, who are forced to follow the work far away from home. Some end up pretty much as economic orphans: according to a recent report from the All-China Women’s Federation, 2m such kids are in effect homeless, living without familial love from one lunar new year to the next.

But not all of them: increasingly, migrants are finding ways to bring offspring along, according to a government report published last year. Ni Meihong, 35, is one of them: her gap-toothed eight-year-old, Zhou Nijun, lives with Ms Ni and her husband, a migrant worker, in the northern Shanghai suburb of Baoshan — rather than alone at home with his grandma in the home they fled to chase the good life.

“I couldn’t leave my baby there,” says Ms Ni, who says Nijun was born in their rural home town on Shanghai’s Chongming Island. He lived there for the first three months of his life with his grandmother while Mum and Dad returned to work in Shanghai, only two hours away by car. But after that Ms Ni wanted her son back with both his parents in the city. So her mother migrated to Shanghai, too, where she looks after the child so her daughter and son-in-law can build a middle-class life in the city.

But, even so, Nijun’s transition to Shanghai was not straightforward. Despite the fact that both parents have lived in Shanghai for more than a decade, little Nijun technically has no automatic right to go to school there. His hukou, or household registration, is in their rural town.

Migrant children are permitted to attend state schools in Shanghai — and local charities say that about two-thirds of them do — but only if the schools have room. Many do not. Ms Ni says she was forced to spend Rmb200,000 ($32,000), a considerable sum for a migrant worker, to buy a flat in the Shanghai suburb of Baoshan in order to get her son into school. “In his class there are nearly 50 students. If you don’t have property, it is not possible to get into school there,” she says.

This new year, Ms Ni and her husband, a taxi driver, only plan to go home to Chongming for the traditional New Year’s eve meal, the equivalent of Christmas dinner in the west. After that, they will return to Shanghai and go straight back to work. Chinese new year is a busy time for the taxi industry, and the couple cannot afford to spend the weeklong holiday back home.

Ms Ni and her husband represent what government officials call a “new stage” of labour migration in China. Wang Qian, head of the migrant population department at China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, told a press conference last year: “As couples have settled down in the place they are working, they start to move their children to stay with them. It starts with the migration of an individual, then the couple, and then the children, and later on it will be the elder people.”

Officials of the Chongming Federation of Labour Unions say that the majority of Chongming taxi drivers do take their kids to live with them in Shanghai. Though it’s close by, it’s still too far and too costly to drive back and forth from the city every day — and the schools are better in Shanghai. Local government officials in Chongming say that, even among those children who are left behind on the island, most have weekly or fortnightly parental visits — so they suffer much less than “true” left-behind children.

But they are the lucky ones: tens of millions of migrant children are just about to spend a week with their parents — and then say goodbye to them for another year. The Chinese dream is a tough taskmaster.

patti.waldmeir@ft.com

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