Thursday, Aug 17, 2017, 10:00 AM CST – China


Left-behind Children


The government and welfare organizations have taken steps over the years to ease the plight of China’s left-behind children, but the scale of the problem makes it tough to tackle

A volunteer teacher discusses safety issues with left-behind children and seniors in Xin’an Village, Jiangxi Province, August 16, 2015 Photo by IC

University volunteers play with left-behind children in Shuangba Village, Sichuan Province, August 5, 2015 Photo by IC

A left-behind child with his younger brother at a care center in Kaili City, Guizhou Province, August 17, 2015 Photo by IC

Peng, a 14-year-old girl, has been a boarder for five years at an elementary school that is a half-hour bus ride from her home in Xiaowopu Village, Chengde City, Hebei Province.

Her father has worked away from home for most of that time, leaving Peng and her mother alone in the house. Peng’s mother lives in the village and spends nearly all her spare time in the evening participating in public square dancing activities with local friends.

According to rules set down by her school, Peng lives at home four days in every 10, but, she says, she has limited contact with her mother even when she is at home. Through WeChat, a popular online messaging tool, she likes to share her feelings with her sister, who is 10 years Peng’s elder and a college graduate — one of only four in the village — and who currently works in Beijing.

“I prefer to stay at home alone. My father often calls, but if he does not contact me for a long time, I feel a little lonely,” she told NewsChina.

Boarding Schools

Over the years, China’s central government has attached growing importance to the problem of left-behind children, establishing boarding schools in rural areas across the country. In January 2015, the State Council, China’s cabinet, released its Guidelines on the Development of Children in Impoverished Regions (2014-2020), in which a comprehensive care system targeting left-behind children began to take shape, at least on paper. According to the plan, the number of boarding schools will be strengthened in 680 of China’s most impoverished rural counties.

According to a report by the China Youth & Children Research Center (CYCRC) in May 2014, the average age of Chinese boarding school students, mostly left-behind children, is decreasing — 35.2 percent are elementary school students, with 15 percent in fourth grade or above. In some elementary schools, the report claimed, some first-graders and even kindergartners live at school.

Official statistics also show that, in 2011, 52.9 percent of junior middle school students in rural areas nationwide were boarders. This group on average achieved lower grades and had an average recorded weight and height that was lower than the average among day students. A Ministry of Education annual report released on July 30 showed that China is now home to over 20 million left-behind children in compulsory education.

Nevertheless, according to a report on boarding school students in rural areas published by child welfare NGO Geluying, or “Growing Home,” the mental and emotional health of China’s boarding school students is a major concern. The organization surveyed nearly 100 boarding school students in 10 provinces between January 2012 and November 2014. They discovered that 47.3 percent of children surveyed suffered from acute “pessimism,” 63.8 percent said that they felt “lonely,” 17.6 percent suffered from depression and 8.4 percent exhibited suicidal tendencies. According to the Rural Education Action Program, a Sino-foreign joint evaluation organization that aims to inform education, health and nutrition policy in China, boarding school students have higher levels of anxiety and demonstrate poorer social skills than students who live at home.

Du Shuang, director of Growing Home, told the Beijing-based Economic Information Daily that, during a trip to a rural boarding school in Guizhou Province, she spent a night in a student dormitory. After lights out, she claimed, the children did not go to sleep immediately. Instead, she heard sobbing from several beds. “Teachers told me later that, because the semester had just started, the younger students felt homesick,” she said.

The boarding school’s principal, speaking on condition of anonymity, told researchers that most mental problems suffered by boarding school students are closely linked to their home environments. Some children, he explained, would not see their parents for years at a time, adding that “many parents care even less about their children after placing them in a boarding school. Some of them don’t even answer the phone when their child calls.”

Yang Dongping, director of the non-profit 21st Century Education Research Institute, believes there is currently “no better option” than building boarding schools to address the problem of left-behind children.

“But it is really the lesser of two evils. Through our research we found that boarding school students tend to be intellectually exhausted, students and teachers have cold relationships, and tensions between students run high,” he told our reporter. “Top-down management and a lack of cultural activities mean mental problems abound.”

Official Oversight

A main obstacle to improving the lot of China’s left-behind children has been ambiguous definitions of the rights and responsibilities of government bodies in the areas of child welfare and protection. For example, China maintains over 20 government agencies and departments which arguably have jurisdiction in this area, including bureaus tasked with overseeing education, civil affairs, health, jurisdiction and women’s affairs.

In November 2013, during the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, the central government attempted to streamline its approach to the issue of left-behind children, specifying clearly that the Ministry of Civil Affairs, rather than the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), would oversee all work, indicating that the government would take responsibility for the welfare and protection of left-behind children.

In January 2008, the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund established a separate branch, the first of its kind, targeting children’s mental health, with a particular focus on left-behind children in rural areas. The fund partly supports teacher training programs designed to educate teachers on how to provide counseling services to left-behind children under their care. In June 2009, the National Working Committee on Children and Women under the State Council started to register migrant children aged under 16 living in China’s cities, while also setting up a database of left-behind children still living in rural areas. The same committee also established a family training program targeting left-behind children and a special counseling hotline.

In August 2004, the Red Cross Society of China launched a Humanitarian Aid Program targeting left-behind children. The initial fund, 10 million yuan (US$1.6m), was earmarked for use in five western provinces and autonomous regions including Guizhou, Yunnan and Gansu. In the first year, this fund helped to build 150 care centers responsible for some 50,000 left-behind children.

In December 2011, the ACWF, in conjunction with several other government agencies, initiated a pilot care project targeting left-behind children in rural areas, expanding to 40 areas in 19 provinces and cities by 2013. Local governments, especially in areas with higher rates of labor outflow, have also taken a number of measures to tackle the problem. In Guizhou Province alone, a total of 800 children’s homes, which function as activity centers, began to be built from April 2014.

Major cities have also begun to relax rules restricting school access for migrant children. Official statistics show that close to 12.3 million school-age children from migrant families are living in China’s cities, with 79.5 percent of them receiving education at public schools.

Wu Ni, director of the education policy department of the National Institute of Education Sciences, told NewsChina that left-behind children constitute a long-standing social issue resulting from rapid urbanization, adding that “the core issue is the lack of parental care.”

“Families should play the defining role in raising children and meeting their spiritual needs. The government is unable to take the place [of a parent] and the key to the problem is to ensure that the role of parents as guardians is solid,” he said.

Wu told our reporter that the fundamental solution lies in reinforcing the development of rural areas, pointing to stagnant and even backsliding living standards and worsening environmental degradation in China’s countryside.

“The central government should focus on or prioritize the rural economy, allowing migrant workers to return home, live with their children and provide them with parental care.”

Civic Aid

China’s NGOs have been quick to respond to the challenge represented by left-behind children by offering material assistance, but it was not until recently that some NGOs began to realize the importance of offering emotional support to fragile youngsters.

Zhou Wenhua, secretary-general of the Guangdong-based Blue Letter Project, an NGO dedicated to children’s mental health, said left-behind children are more in need of emotional support than material assistance, claiming that the physical needs of left-behind children are often better met than those of children living with their parents. Zhou said there have been few programs targeting the emotional needs of left-behind children who, he argues, suffer most from “a lack of security and a sense of presence.”

“Over the years, until a basic support mechanism was established, government and civil organizations mainly focused their attention on the material support, education and living standards of left-behind children,” Zhou told the Guangzhou-based newspaper New Express. “In terms of psychological care, it has failed to generate sufficient attention.”

“Some NGOs address the emotional needs of left-behind children through setting up libraries, organizing summer schools or bringing children to cities to see their parents, but this does little to help their long-term emotional development,” he said.

Since its inception in 2008, the Blue Letter Project has invited over 3,000 social workers from Chinese universities, including 500 in a full-time capacity, to maintain regular written correspondence with left-behind children as a means to address their emotional problems. In March 2015, the organization began to send full-time volunteers to schools in Guangdong and Hunan provinces to lead left-behind children in extra classes, games and family visits, encouraging them to discuss their feelings.

Shangxuelushang (SXLS) or “On the Way to School,” another NGO dedicated to the mental health of left-behind children, has been working to help provide emotional support to children living without parents or guardians. From April 2013, the group began to invite celebrities and other volunteers to read and record stories for distribution to left-behind children to provide them with “good company” on their way to school. So far, over 3,000 “story boxes” with at least 8,000 minutes of recorded material have been distributed to rural students in seven provinces.

Liu Xinyu, head of SXLS, is experimenting with a brand-new app which allows parents or children to leave lengthy voice messages for one another, allowing parents to tell stories to their children even if they are not physically present. Children can also use the app to seek help from volunteer child psychologists. Once live, this app is expected to benefit 30,000 children in over 70 schools across the country, and Liu has vowed to extend its services to cover China’s entire population of left-behind children by 2020.

“We found through our research that the main topic of conversation between parents and children is school and daily life, with very few parents aware of the importance of caring for their children’s emotional needs,” Liu told NewsChina. “The voices children want to hear the most have been proven to be those of their parents.”

Liu added that all of China’s child welfare NGOs combined do not have the capacity to help the country’s total population of left-behind children. The problem, he stressed, must be resolved by all of society. According to Liu, the general public does not have a clear concept of this largely invisible group, adding that many welfare organizations do not have a definite objective before they take action, an approach that results in the waste of resources.


Zhang Xiaoyuan, ACWF PR chief, told our reporter that caring for left-behind children comes with a number of challenges for both the government and private organizations. She added that it is unlikely the problem will be solved in the foreseeable future, given the size of this vulnerable group and the sheer cost of helping them all.

“Over the years, the ACWF has been pushing for family education legislation, a strengthening of government responsibility and the promotion of good, dutiful parenting,” she said. According to a recent survey of 2,000 netizens by China Youth Daily, 74 percent of respondents blamed parents for the injury or deaths of neglected children.

On December 12, 2014, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a joint regulation calling on parents to care for their children, which also hinted that legal guardianship could be revoked in cases of neglect. This regulation came into effect on January 1.

Xia Xueluan, sociology professor at Peking University, said that whether a child is left behind or taken to a city by migrant worker parents, a general lack of parental care and supervision is always likely to cause injury, death and mental problems.

“As for child development, nobody can take the place of a parent in providing psychological solace and education. The way out for left-behind children lies in institutional reform,” Xia told NewsChina.

As of 1991, the Chinese government has been a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document which states clearly that children are entitled to the right to live with their families and in the care of their parents. More than 20 years later, protecting these rights in the face of economic pragmatism remains a dilemma for China.

As a response to the convention, also in 1991, China passed its Law on the Protection of Minors to enhance legal awareness of child abuse and neglect, but Yang Dongping said the law is too vaguely worded to be applicable to specific problems, adding that there remains a lack of professional, comprehensive legal infrastructure safeguarding the rights of minors.

Yang said that it is a matter of some urgency for China to formulate a Children’s Welfare Law, and establish an independent institution responsible for the safety and welfare of vulnerable minors while also supervising the implementation of laws and coordination between different government bodies.

“A Children’s Welfare Law would mainly benefit vulnerable children, including left-behind children, orphans, children with disabilities, homeless and abandoned children, and children from broken homes. It is the weakness and chaos of institutions that reflects the absence of government functionality and management,” he told NewsChina.

Yang also recommended inaugurating a national Left-behind Children’s Day on June 9, the day when four left-behind siblings in a county in Bijie City, Guizhou Province, committed suicide by drinking pesticide after being left to fend for themselves for months.

“What the government has to do is build a legal protection system and boost civil involvement to foster a comprehensive supervision and relief mechanism for the benefit of left-behind children from the bottom up,” he said.


Editor's Picks

Sex for Snacks

In cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, a handful of high school…[More]

Worked to Death

A growing number of young Chinese white-collar employees are dying of…[More]


How Communism’s most controversial theorist finally found an audience – in…[More]

What do Chinese People Want?

“I wish I could do what you do.”…[More]


A student of Buddhism with a keen interest in China’s…[More]

Prize Fighter

Elevated into the State-approved pantheon of great Chinese writers thanks to…[More]

Dams in Distress

In 1975, over 60 dams collapsed after a rainstorm in Zhumadian city, Henan…[More]

Pathologically Politicized

Practitioners at all levels concur that “messy” is the word that…[More]


China’s indigenous honey bee is under threat from both environmental…[More]

Exam Boot Camp

A middle school in Anhui province has earned a reputation for…[More]

The New Class

China’s growing online education market has attracted the attention of…[More]

From Stall to Mall

Taobao’s shift towards a business-to-consumer model has come at a…[More]

In Whose Court?

The failure of the country’s administrative litigation system has prompted…[More]

Tradition on Trial

After Confucianism made the maintenance of inequality between the sexes fundamental…[More]

Inevitable Brutality

The vicious murder of a doctor in a Zhejiang hospital shows…[More]

Progress or Pornography?

A new sex education primer aimed at elementary school-age children has…[More]

Graft Breeds Graft

The gap between the investigation and prosecution of official corruption cases…[More]

Saving Nature

The concept of animal welfare is yet to be widely acknowledged…[More]

Problem Solved?

Former Politburo member Bo Xilai’s public trial sends mixed messages…[More]


A 74-year-old man surnamed Xie from Shenyang, Liaoning Province was duped out of 420,000 yuan (US$69,342), despite bank employees’ efforts to…[More]

An Avoidable Tragedy

Poor city planning and lax safety regulations turned a minor gas…[More]


A policeman pulled his gun to dissuade villagers from stealing oranges…[More]

Who Cares?

A new law decrees that all Chinese citizens are now obliged…[More]

Mean Streets

The chengguan system has become the most visible symptom of a…[More]

How do Chinese people live?

So, the bottom line is that Beijing is an expensive place.…[More]

Back in Action

After stagnating for 10 years, China’s SOE reform has fired up…[More]


The hanging coffins of the Bo people, a Chinese ethnic minority…[More]


Wang Xun, an archeologist with Peking University, arranged the bones of…[More]

Trust Trip

Embarking on a three-month car journey around China without handing over…[More]

Fading Lights

For those who grew up under the bright lights of China…[More]