“Left-Behind” Children: How China turns a social problem into moral failings

In June 2015, the news of four siblings who committed suicide in Guizhou Province shocked China. The suicides exposed the hardship of the “left-behind” children — children who stayed behind in rural villages while their parents moved to the cities for work. My recent article in the journal Current Sociology argues that the problem is rooted in the state’s neoliberal-authoritarian approach towards the rural migrant population. The hukou system enables urban local governments to keep rural migrants as a “floating population” rather than as settlers, which necessitates the split-household arrangements of rural migrant families. At the same time, both the mainstream media and public policies pathologize the social issues of this population. 

The “left-behind” phenomenon

Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has implemented an urban development strategy that capitalizes on the seemingly unlimited supply of rural migrant laborers. At the same time, through an exclusionary hukou (household registration) system, it has limited these laborers’ abilities to access social services in urban areas.

This has compelled many families to split households across localities, with a “left-behind” part that maintains family life and caring for dependents and a migrant part that focuses on economic production. According to data from the Census of 2010, 61 million children under the age of 17 were “left behind,” equivalent to one-fifth of China’s child population.

Turning a social problem into moral failings

The mainstream media in China tends to construct an image of the ‘pathological migrant family’: the construction turns challenges faced by these families into moral issues. This moralization follows a neoliberal logic that valorises individual/family responsibilities over social welfare support. My analysis of data gathered from a mainstream newspaper, China Youth Daily, reveals a set of such narratives.

First, the migration of parents from rural areas to cities is often described as inflicting irretrievable psychological damages on “left-behind” children. In many instances, journalists, commentators and experts equate the physical absence of migrant parents with them completely losing touch with their children.

Second, parental absence is often framed by these authors as parental negligence or the abandonment of responsibilities. Instead of examining the broader social issues, the actions of the parents are scrutinized in order to look for perceived moral failings.

Third, the media promotes a narrative of inadequate grand-parenting by portraying grandparents as a purely negative influence on children. Commentators have often alleged that grandparents are inadequate carers for “left-behind” children: they pay little attention to children’s cognitive development, are too harsh or too lenient in disciplining the children, and possess no “scientific” child-rearing skills. However, my fieldwork research with rural households in Hunan contradicts these claims. I have found cases where grandparents conscientiously cultivate children’s personalities and learning habits. More importantly, they bond with these children, so that they feel cared for.

“Left-behind” children in public policy

Public policies addressing issues related to “left-behind” children consist of two phases. The first phase (2006-2013) focused on educating and regulating rural migrant families using urban middle-class experiences as the model. The ongoing second phase (since the mid-2010s) is characterized by a pluralistic approach, which includes hukou reform, community support, engaging professional services as well as continued family regulation and education.

Many policy initiatives perpetuate a set of parenting ideologies rooted in urban middle-class experiences. But migrant families do not have similar experiences — instead their experiences are rendered deviant from the state’s view. For example, the Family Education Guidelines, jointly issued by seven central-government ministries/organs in 2010, singled out households with “left-behind” children:

“Parents/guardians are guided to enhance their sense of guardianship responsibilities and carefully fulfil their obligations: 1) As far as possible, one parent should stay at home to take care of the children. If conditions allow, migrant mothers with infants should bring their children along to ensure that infants are breast-fed and well cared for; 2) The left-behind parents or entrusted guardians in rural areas should be instructed to pay attention to children’s education, communicate  more with children, and give full attention to children’s moral development and spiritual needs.”

Such guidelines wilfully ignore the structural constraints that these families are facing: the lack of employment opportunities in rural areas, the hukou-based discrimination in cities, and the challenges of raising grandchildren for rural elders.

In recent years, the central government has been experimenting with new models to care for “left-behind” children, such as by bringing in social workers, yet the stance on disciplining migrant families remains unchanged.

Those who have allegedly failed their guardianship duties are held responsible by law enforcement. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, in 2016-17, more than 90,000 ‘negligent’ parents were subject to ‘criticism and education’ with 282 parents receiving ‘public security administrative penalties.’ Another 16 were held criminally responsible, and a further 17 parents were stripped of custody of their children.

Yet, the root of the problem — the hukou system — is still not fully dismantled. Though the State Council announced a new hukou reform in 2014, the barriers to migrant families’ access to public goods and services have eased only in small or medium-sized cities. In cities with large migrant populations, a points-based system continues to screen rural migrants and their families for the provision of public services.

For China to achieve more equitable and sustainable development, the Chinese government needs to significantly reform its governance approach towards the rural migrant population.