Modern China is home to many phrases that seem to exist in few other parts of the world. Phrases like: Cancer Village, Blue-sky Days, and Gutter Oil. Perhaps the most troubling of these is “Left Behind…”, because the full damage is much harder to see. This phrase refers to children, wives and elderly parents who are left in the countryside while the productive generation heads to the cities to look for work, and captures a few of the issues we’ll be exploring over the next few days.
Parents in rural China face a difficult choice once they have decided to look for work in a place beyond their hukou status: should they bring their child with them?
If they bring their child with them as they look for work, it can mean an incredibly difficult life for their young one. Since migrant worker’s children lack a hukou registration for the new town, they are not allowed to enroll in the public schools, instead they are supposed to register for the migrant worker schools. Which are supposedly separate but equal (this language is intentional, as hukou related issues have been called China’s Apartheid).
These schools often are of shoddy construction and lack certified teachers, but are the only option for migrant families who want to remain together. These schools are regularly shut down by local governments for a variety of reasons, that seem to be more about their public image than concern for their health. This often leads to children being left without any options for education. With that being said, many of these schools are no place for children, as a number of children have been abused in these unlicensed centers.
Officially there has been some discussion that these children should be admitted to public schools if no migrant schools exist, but this is something that is virtually never seen. After all, public school have zero incentive to accept poor students who cannot afford materials or afford the fees, and are likely already behind their urban counterparts. Considering that even a local child in Shenzhen, who was burned in an accident can be refused entry to kindergarten, it should not be surprising that migrant workers face equal challenges.
The other option is to leave their children behind with family members in the countryside (which I explored earlier this week). Here these children also face substandard schools, poor sanitation, limited access to medical treatment, and few opportunities at a better life. These rural schools are lacking, but at least offer a more stable environment for learning than the urban migrant schools.
I would estimate that nearly 75% of my students in Guangxi had at least one parent working in a distant city and more than 1/3rd were being raised by a grandparent or aunt and uncle, and I did not have a single student who admitted to attending a migrant worker school. I’m not sure how representative these numbers are of children outside of the colleges I worked at in Guangxi. Perhaps they were able to attend college only because of their parents’ sacrifice, or maybe they could have accomplished much more if their parents had been at home to motivate their studies.
For the time being it seems that leaving children behind in the countryside is the better option for a child’s future, but at the same time it dissolves the family bonds that are the basis of Chinese society. I am thankful everyday that I will not have to make a decision as heart-wrenching as this. And I hope someday, for my students’ childrens’ sake, that in a future China, they will not have to make this kind of choice either. Children, regardless of their parent’s situation, deserve equal access to education and opportunities.