China: The Hidden Cost of Migration Featured

by on Thursday, 08 May 2014 Comments

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

 

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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