t a recent press conference in mid-November, China’s Civil Affairs Ministry put the official figure of “left-behind” kids, rural children left behind in the countryside by parents who have migrated to the cities to work, at 9.02 million. The figure contrasts sharply with a widely accepted estimate adopted by a 2013 report on “left-behind” kids released by the All-China Women’s Federation, which put the total number of left-behind kids nationwide at 61 million.
The Civil Affairs Ministry says the reason for the sharp difference is because it uses different criteria from social scientists. The academic world considers rural children to be “left-behind” if they’re under 18 and have at least one parent working elsewhere, while the ministry only uses the term for kids under 16 and when both parents are absent.
Even considering the different standards, the new figure is still substantially lower than previous estimates. For example, according to the 2013 ACWF report, 47 percent of the 61 million children had both parents absent, which, even using the ministry’s criteria, would make the figure about 30 million. According to the report, 20 million left-behind kids are being cared for by their grandparents, with 6 million under the care of other relatives and more than 2 million living by themselves without stable guardians.
The ministry says that new policies at both the central and local level addressing the issue have contributed to shrinking the number of left-behind children in the last couple of years. But the academic consensus is that these policies are far from enough to tackle the wide range of problems in the education and care of these children.
Experts are concerned that the government’s adoption of a new standard that produces a lower figure may suggest that the issue of “left-behind” children will be further marginalized on its policy agenda. This concern is not unfounded. Despite the official rhetoric on the issue, there has been no transparency regarding the programs launched to support the families of left-behind children.
In June last year, four “left-behind” siblings in a rural county in Guizhou Province who had been living by themselves committed suicide by drinking pesticide, triggering public outcry and scrutiny over the use of the 180 million yuan (US$26.5 million) fund set up specifically to address the issue. So far, there’s been no information from local governments on where all the money went.
The authorities must be aware of how serious this issue is, and prioritize the education and health of millions of young Chinese. Care of the next generation should be a top priority for the central government.
Instead of relying on local governments, it should take assertive actions to address the issue with strong central initiatives. The problems might be local, but they have national roots, such as the institutional barriers that keep migrants from accessing family services where they work, and the poor education and social welfare systems in China’s vast countryside. China’s economic development over recent decades was built on the backs of the migrant workers who poured into the cities. As China restructures its economy, it’s time to pay back the men and women who built the nation, and to stop the rush for development at the cost of society’s most vulnerable.