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Left-behind children near Huangshan City, eastern China
Left-behind children near Huangshan City, eastern China
Song Shinan

BEIJING — In Bijie, an impoverished rural area of Guizhou Province, children are dying, some in ghastly accidents, some by their own hand. It's as if the place is cursed.

Earlier this month, four "left-behind" siblings, aged five to 13, committed suicide by ingesting pesticide. Their father works in the city all year, and their mother ran away from home, so they were left to fend for themselves.

Three years ago, another group of children whose migrant parents were away working in the cities died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a fire they set in a trash bin where they hid to keep warm. The victims were five boys, aged nine to 13.

In December 2013, five Bijie children were killed by agricultural vehicles on their way home from school. A few months later, news of another horrendous scandal surfaced: At least a dozen primary schoolgirls in Bijie were raped by their teacher. Most of the girls, again, had been left behind by their parents, meaning that afterwards, they had no one to talk to about the unbearable humiliation and pain they suffered.

There is a Chinese nursery rhyme called "Our Motherland is a Garden." For the left-behind children of Bijie, home is wasteland, a place where they can be suffocated, crushed by vehicles, raped, or even kill themselves because they can no longer bear the loneliness and poverty.

"She just put her head down"

We'll never find out exactly what was in the minds of the four children who killed themselves. But one primary school teacher's post on an Internet forum offers a glimpse into the cruel situation these left-behind children endure:

"I teach in the rural areas, and many come from single-parent families. The mother of one of my students ran away from home. The three sisters are all only primary school age. They live very far away from school. Every day my student looks listless. In the beginning I always told her that she looked like she hadn't eaten. And she would just put her head down," the teacher wrote.

"Later on I learned that every day at noon she walked a long distance to go home for lunch. If her elder sister managed to beg some rice from a relative, the sisters would eat it with a spicy bar, a sort of starch bar made mainly with chili, flour and soy bean. Otherwise she'd just return to school with an empty stomach. I was really distraught to learn that. And yet there are so many children in my school in similar situations. The longer I stay here the more helpless and depressed I feel," the post concluded.

Like a poem written by Huang Canran, these left-behind children "suffer and swallow their tears in silence. Their lives pass with sorrow and resentment. They simulate joy in agony. They dream that inaccessible reunion dream blocked by the system and end their lives, as such, in tears."

Nationwide phenomenon

After the shocking incident of the five suffocated children, the then Bijie mayor vowed to carry out a citywide investigation of the population of children left-behind by their parents, so as to have a complete management file to implement relief measures. And yet the disasters kept occurring, one after the after — in Bijie, specifically, but also in other parts of China, where left-behind children number in the tens of millions.

A report published by the China Women's Federation suggests that as of 2013, the country had more than 60 million minors left at home by their parents. Another 35.8 million children migrate with their parents. Either way, hardships abound. Most live in unheated, rudimentary dwellings.

Over the years, people have come up with various ideas about how to tackle the issue. Some says migrant workers need paid holidays. Others want the government to provide certain financial subsidies. But for all the talk, there's been little real action.

None of these suggestions, furthermore, address the real root of the problem, which is the unequal distribution of power inherent in the country's deformed urban-rural structure. Most resources and opportunities are concentrated in mega-cities. Medium-sized cities are scarce, while small cities grow slowly or not at all.

Urban development, in the meantime, is unbalanced. The majority of urbanization is along the coast, while in each province the center of gravity is around the political center of the provincial capital. As U.S. sociologist Ching-Kun Yang pointed out years ago, the imbalance in favor of large cities hinders the country's overall modernization. China's big cities have become nearly as fashionable as their counterparts in the capitalist world while the countryside remains primitive.

Withering villages

Complicating matters even more is the hukou, China's household registration system, which basically divides people into "agricultural" and "non-agricultural" groups, and discriminates against the migrant workers and their offspring living in the cities.

Those that are left to eke out an existence in the countryside, in the meantime, deal with hardships that go beyond just the lack of development. The truth is that China's urban—rural relation is an aggressive plundering one. China's cities thrive by sucking the rural area's blood.

As a result, the social ecological chain in the countryside has been broken. Households used to have four generations, all living and working together. It was something Chinese people cherished and aspired to. Now, all the men and women at their prime are gone. What's left are the elderly, the children, the sick and the disabled. How could the villages not wither away?

Politics play a role as well. Villagers have little control over their own fates. They have no say when it comes to transferring their land, or how the local township is to be built. A place where people are denied autonomous rights is doomed to fade. The left-behind children, in this sense, are just a symptom, albeit the most alarming one, of a much larger malady.

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