In today's China, there might be around 150 million "migrant workers', having left the place of their household registration and working in cities for varying lengths of time. The numbers remain debated and fluctuating. Migrant workers' situations vary tremendously, from stable insertion into the urban setting to utmost precariousness. Even when taking into account the great diversity that characterizes inner migrations in China, what remains undisputed is the severity of the social, affective and educational cost paid by migrant workers' children.
Here, two categories of children need to be distinguished: children having migrated together with their parents, and so called 'left-behind" children. The number of migrant children in cities (the first category) is difficult to estimate. Their number has probably reached 20 million. When considering children within the compulsory education age, according to the Ministry of Education, in 2011, 12.6 million of them moved with their parents, 938 000 more than in 2010. Over 60 % of migrant workers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have their kids with them. One third of migrant children are born in their current city of residence and one third have stayed there for at least 5 years. However, they remain second-class citizens in cities, where they face institutional barriers to school and healthcare as well as social discrimination. Still, their overall situation may be progressively improving, as their fate has now been debated for years, and administrative discriminations are removed step by step, with different speed and targets from city to city.
Comparatively, children "left behind" in the countryside by parents who migrate for work constitute a group that has drawn less attention, though they are more numerous. Their number was estimated to 58 million by a 2008 report authored by the All-China Women's Federation, thus accounting for 21.72 percent of rural children aged 17 or less. Administrative statistics are more conservative; according to the Ministry of Education, in 2011 there were 22 million "left-behind" children of school age - 712 000 less than the year before..
A recent study trip to Sichuan has made me more conscious of the continuing seriousness of the situation, and of the psychological costs it entails. In the rural county we visited, a very large number of young people are working in the cities, scattered all around China. Even when they work in Chengdu (a 2 to 3 hours drive away) they very rarely visit back. From a list of around sixty students considered as living in a precarious situation, we paid a home visit to seven of them, who were all aged 7 to 11. Among them, only one child lived with his foster parents. Four of them were living with both grandparents, one with her grandmother alone, and one with her grandfather. None of them, it seemed, had seen their parents for at least one year. All parents had separated, except for one case where the father had died already. In several cases, the grandparents were trying to encourage the children to phone their parents, but the children were refusing to do so.
We were struck also by the dignity and resilience of the grandparents - Sichuanese peasants who had gone already through lots of hardship in their life, the most unexpected of them having probably been to lose their children because of the lure of city and money, and now all starting anew with the younger generation. The parents' generation was also obviously among the victims: the economic boom had been creating expectations to which they were not psychologically ready to respond in a sustainable way. Marital relationships had been shattered by conditions imposed upon them for staying in the urban job market.
The real concern and the sound assessment of the situation expressed by the teachers who guided us was also reason for comfort. So was the development of local volunteers' associations trying to deal with the plight of rural women and children. They were one more testimony to the building-up of China's civil society. In other words, today's China is more equipped than before for dealing with the social and psychological traumas that its developmental model has engineered. However, the extent to which children are still paying the price of social imbalance needs to be more openly recognized and prioritized. The future of China lies in its children, and a very large number of them remain collateral victims of the drive to prosperity.
Photo by Chialin Huang for the TRI
Opinions, Dreams & Videos
Governance and Its Discontents 世界需要新藍圖
The old men at Huanmin Village have lived there all their life. Every day, they meet to chat about things, as old friends often do. Their peaceful existence, however, is being threatened by the plans to demolish the houses which hold so many memories for them.
For students of NTU, Gongguan's café hipster youth and the high density of foreigners and government officials in the surrounding area, Toad Mountain (蟾蜍山) is merely a beautiful mountain ink landscape backdrop as one walks down Roosevelt Rd, as that painted by the traditional oil paint artist He Cong (何從):
Photographer and journalist Hubert Kilian shares his experiences documenting the side of Taipei behind the glitz and the glamour in black and white, a side of Taipei that is often forgotten.
Image and Imagination 亞洲的想像花園
As observed in the mass media and our own personal experience, the Earth's habitat is facing an unprecedented crisis. We clearly realize that the problems and disasters caused by global warming cannot be avoided by any country: one infectious disease after another quickly spreads across national borders, acid rain floats over the seas, even China's sandstorms affect Taiwan. When humankind causes an imbalance in the natural order created by other species, the retribution always ends up coming back and affecting humankind. Never in human history has humankind realised, the way we do today, just how inextricably connected all life on this planet is, forming one big symbiotic entity.
The Mountains and the Margins of Taipei
As the second of our two-part feature on nature and the city, Shanshui Taipei, we explore Taipei's mountains. The mountains represent the natural frontier of the city, the border between the natural jungle and the urban jungle, but also the border between a standardized modus operandi of urban living and the diverse community lifestyles on the periphery, detached as they are from the daily reliance on the mainstream structures of the urban core.
David Flacher, Vice-President of the Organization for Universal Citizenship, talks to us about their Universal Passport, which they have issued to a group of high profile individuals (amongst them former Portuguese president Mario Soares, former French footballer Lilian Thuram and Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen) to raise awareness of their goals to bring freedom of movement and settlement to the people of the world.
For more information on the movement, please click here.
Commitment to Freedom 以自由之名
In 1995, a group of scholars, from the Yi and Han nationalities as well as from a few countries outside China, gathered at University of Washington in Seattle, at the initiative of Professor Stevan Harrell.
Building communities 族群重建
The stream of the Danshui river was bringing me a peaceful melody, waves were biting the shore softly, but, stream inside the stream, slightly blurring the mirror of the water, I could hear a confusing tumult, news from the world struggling in the distance to spill a shot of truth at me:
"When the soldier was being interrogated, all 16 surveillance cameras stopped working. This is absolutely normal. It happens all the time in the army, the cameras are old. This is a banal accident"
Focus: Taipei, Water City
The Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival is a biannual festival, organized by the Taiwan Association of Visual Ethnography and held in Taipei. I was very glad to attend this year’s festival, and over the five-day event I saw many interesting and inspiring films. One that immediately stood out for me was the documentary A Tale of Two Syrias. I studied Arabic in Damascus, and later returned there for work, so for me the film had a very personal appeal. Nevertheless, A Tale of Two Syrias makes interesting viewing for anyone who wants to know more about the region.
The film switches between two locations and two people. In Damascus, we follow the story of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer who fled from Baghdad during the Iraq war and hopes to seek asylum in America. In Mar Musa, a remote hillside monastery in the Syrian countryside, we follow Botrus, a Syrian monk. The film weaves between these two stories to paint an intimate portrait of a country that despite the recent media coverage, most people know very little about. By capturing the difficulties faced by ordinary Syrians in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and also their vision of a better, freer life in the future, in some ways the film pre-empts the current conflict. However, through the beauty of Mar Musa and its inhabitants’ belief in inter-religious dialogue and mutual respect and tolerance, it also shows a vision of what that future Syria could be like.
I caught up with the director, Yasmin Fedda, whom I first met in Syria during my time there, and this is what she had to say:
eRenlai: It was great to see a film with a Middle East focus at the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival. How did it happen? Did they approach you? Did you approach them? What was the deal?
YF: I had heard of the Taiwan Ethnographic Film Festival through the Visual Anthropology networks that I am connected to, so I applied to them. They accepted, which was great!
eRenlai: Aside from your family links to the region, what was it that drew you to make a film about Syria?
YF: At the time of filming, in 2010, there were still a very limited number of documentaries made in Syria, both by Syrians and internationals. I felt that it was important to make a film about regular- but unique- people's lives in a country that was largely misunderstood by the world's media.
eRenlai: "A Tale of Two Syrias" is an intriguing title. What are the "two Syrias" you tried to capture while you were filming?
YF: I wanted to reflect the 2 stories of 2 individuals, the city and the country, the official and the unofficial, the before and the after.
eRenlai: Your film shows Syria through the perspective of two very different people, but nevertheless your two interviewees are both male, both Christian, and one of them is an Iraqi only recently arrived in Syria. Why did you choose these two people in particular to represent the Syria of 2010? Some people may question why you did not choose a Muslim or a female voice for example….
YF: Good question. I realised after finishing it that some audiences have assumed that Salem, the Iraqi, is Christian, but in fact he is Muslim, but not very religious. At the time of editing I decided I didn't want to spell out what religion he is because he didn't either. The only person's religion I did mention is that of Botrus. In Syria it wasn't strange for people of different religions to visit the shrines of other religions. I also think it is important to see that people’s religious beliefs and practices can be expressed in multiple ways, and being Muslim or Christian is not just done in one particular way that defines it for the rest. I also chose to have a story of an Iraqi refugee because up until 2010, up to 1 million Iraqis had gone through or settled in Syria and I wanted to humanise one of these experiences.
As for a female voice, I did try to find a female story, but after several different leads the stories didn't work out for various reasons (either bureaucratic, or difficult access to their particular stories). So yes I did intend to have a female voice. But ultimately I was attracted to both Salem and Botrus’s stories as neither of them are your typical person in Syria and I think that gives an interesting perspective on life there at the time.
eRenlai: It was surprising that you managed to capture so many Syrians expressing their political opinions on camera (I am referring in particular to the discussions at Deir Mar Musa). Was there any suspicion on their part? Did you have to do much persuading?
While people were discussing in Mar Musa I was allowed to film, due to being accepted by the community and also because I think people felt safe to speak there, so I didn't need to do any persuading. However the two discussions I filmed there now seem to reflect not only a different time, but also the issues that are pertinent today, like what does freedom look like and how do you share that and accept others?
eRenlai: Has the film ever been screened in Syria or the Middle East? If so how was the film received? What kind of comments did people have?
No, I haven't screened it in Syria or the Middle East, as it is difficult to do so at the moment. But many Syrians have seen it and have given me great feedback, which has been valuable to me.
eRenlai: Could you talk about your changing emotions as the revolution in Syria started, then after a few months when it became clear there was going to be no quick toppling of the regime as in Libya or Tunisia, and finally when the revolution became a bloody civil war.
I was, of course, excited by the potential in Syria for change from dictatorship, and I still support this change. It became clear that this would not be easy as soon as the regime’s forces started killing people at protests and funerals, imprisoning and torturing thousands and using indiscriminate force in various parts of the country.
It is very sad and distressing to see the violence and destruction occurring in Syria today, and a strong solution to end the violence is needed as soon as possible, and then a transition to a different system of governance needs to be built.
Because of events in Syria today, the whole film has a sense of irony, tension and impending disaster it might not have had otherwise. Had there been no conflict in Syria as you were editing the film, would you have made your film differently? What would you have changed and why?
I am sure it would have been edited completely differently, and my perspectives would have been different. It is difficult to know what would have been different as making a film is also very instinctive, and I was editing whilst the revolution was gaining ground and there was increasing repression and violence. I could not separate those things from editing. But in saying that, the Syria I filmed in was run by an authoritarian regime with much structural violence, rising poverty, crony capitalism, and many other problems. It was far from being a non-conflicted country even then. So I feel that this sense of disaster was there, even in 2010, but it wasn't clear where it was going exactly. The tension was there and I re-found it in the footage as I was editing.
eRenlai: At what stage of the editing process did the revolution start? How far had you got with the film?
The revolution started just as I started editing, so it was difficult to see the footage of a few months before with the current news of what was happening in Syria. It took a while for me to edit after that as I could not edit the film easily due to these changes in Syria and the effects these were having on friends and family there. I took a few months off from editing, and then returned to it, knowing that the situation there had changed dramatically.
eRenlai: Before the conflict, Syria was not often talked about in the media. Now, because of the conflict, Syria and films about Syria are getting far greater public attention. As a film-maker, could you describe your feelings when faced with this reality?
While there is a lot of media attention about Syria I feel that there is not enough that deals with it more deeply, as most of the work is about war, which can be quite frustrating. That being said there are more and more great films being made there and they are slowly being filtered out into the world.
eRenlai: With the escalation of the conflict into a civil war between a multitude of actors, some of whom have shown themselves to be just as brutal as the regime, can we still call the conflict a "revolution"? Can we still say that all factions of the rebels in Syria are fighting for freedom?
I think we can say that there is a lot happening in Syria and one of those things is a revolution. There are many other conflicts and fights going on at the same time but that does not mean we must sideline those that work non-violently or who focus on a change from dictatorship or for democracy. Silencing or ignoring them is dangerous, as is understanding the conflict in Syria in narrow terms, such as a conflict made up only of fighting factions, or of extremists, or full of brutal leaders. In reality there are many opinions and approaches.
Also it is important to keep things in perspective. The regime has, and still does, have majority of control of violence. The majority of destruction has been due to the regimes shelling and attacks, as have been most tortures, arrests and killings.
What is happening in Syria can also be called 'uprisings', a set of political processes that are occurring at the same time, trying to work out what they are and where they are going. Also the term 'Freedom' depends on your definition of it, so yes, many factions may be fighting for that, and the challenge is reconciling those different interpretations of the term.
eRenlai: What do you think when you hear what some Syrians interviewed in the media –both in Syria and outside the country- are saying; that they preferred things as they were under Bashar al-Assad to the chaos reigning in their country today?
I hear a variety of opinions coming out of Syria but I cannot say that I have heard this opinion very often at all. On the contrary, I hear the opposite much more. Many people ask for an end to the chaos and violence but recognise that the regime has been the driving force for this chaos from the start in order to win popular support and to become even more entrenched.
Some people do say they prefer Bashar al Assad, and others that they support someone else or some other group, and many others still that they prefer neither of these options. I think this reflects the diversity of experiences and opinions across the country and I think this variety needs to be acknowledged and a space for it created in the future.
eRenlai: Christians in Syria today- and the village of Maaloula in particular where some of your film was shot- are not being persecuted by the regime, but rather by Islamist factions of the opposition. How does this affect Christians' place in the struggle against the regime? They must be in a difficult position now...
I think the premise of this question is wrong and you cannot assume that Christians as a whole are being persecuted. Many Christians have been persecuted by the regime pre and post conflict. At the same time there were individuals that were close to the regime and have favourable positions because of this. Sectarianism was used by the regime as a tool to consolidate power, both before and during the uprising against it. So this is a very complicated situation, as it is for Syrians of all backgrounds, including for Muslims, Druze, or atheists.
I think it is important not to see Christians as one homogenous group of people. There are many differing opinions and experiences which affect people's decisions so I don't think it makes sense to phrase the issue as the 'Christians' place in the struggle against the regime. It is about Syrians as a whole, people all over Syria are being targeted.
eRenlai: What is the best scenario for religious minorities in Syria? At the moment things do not look good either way for them...
I don't believe this is a healthy way to see this issue. I think the best thing is to treat everyone as Syrians, as this is isn't a sectarian conflict, and is still one based on power struggles. By saying that religious minorities are having a hard time, you are ignoring that the fact that the 'majority ' of Syrians, many of whom are Sunni Muslims, are also having a very hard time. Everyone is affected by the conflict in deep ways and this must be recognised for everyone.
It is important to point out that the regime has aimed since the start to make this a sectarian conflict, and this kind of narrative supports their aim. Sectarianism exists, but the uprising did not begin as a sectarian uprising.
eRenlai: Going back to your title, “A Tale of Two Syrias”, what "two Syrias" (or more than two) can you envisage in the future when this horrible conflict has come to an end?
It will take a long time to rebuild Syria but I hope it will be just one Syria after the conflict. One that is based on dignity, equality and able to accept diversity of opinion, whatever it might be.
eRenlai: Will you be returning to the Middle East for another filming project soon?
I am going to be working in Jordan very soon, filming a theatre production of The Trojan Women by Euripides, set in the modern Syrian conflict and made with Syrian refugees who now live there.
For more information about Yasmin please visit her site, http://tellbrakfilms.com/
Women in Asia 亞洲新女性
"...but as the world grew more and more affluent, laws and restrictions multiplied, discrimination increased, and somehow we lost our freedom. Why did this happen?"
Yasutaka Tsutsui, "The Last Smoker"
In Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui's 1987 novel "The Last Smoker", he depicts a fictitious Japan in which the anti-smoking movement has become powerful, leading eventually to the extermination of smokers. Even though this piece is classified as science fiction, the descriptions found in the novel, such as the unwillingness to understand smokers, their plight of being loathed, and the general state of discrimination against them are all too present in the real world.
Commitment to Freedom 以自由之名
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