South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Lijia Zhang says the social and emotional costs of keeping families separated are too high to bear
The start of a new school year should be a joyful time. Instead, in Beijing, it has heralded tears and painful family separations: the children of migrant workers who failed to secure a place at a local school have been forced to leave.
The family of my neighbour, Mr Ma, a self-employed electrician, is among those affected. His wife has just taken their seven-year-old daughter, Qiuyu, and her visiting brother, Xiaobao, back to their home village outside Datong , in central Shanxi province.
Qiuyu had been at home for nine months, after her private unlicensed kindergarten run by a fellow migrant was shut down by the authorities who said it lacked safety measures.
My neighbourhood in Jiuxianqiao village is populated by migrant workers. In recent months, the Mas visited dozens of primary schools in the area. All migrant schools seem to have closed and all state schools demanded five documents, including a temporary resident permit, rental contract and proof of employment. Mr Ma had none of them.
He said at least 10 families he knows have met the same fate. In fact, the rules surrounding schooling of migrant children have been tightened, according to a recent report in Wen Wei Po, which claimed that around 10,000 migrant children have been unable to attend state-run schools after failing to provide the required documents. A small percentage may fight on, forging documents, paying sponsorship where required, or even bribes. Most families, however, will have to say goodbye to their children as they return to their rural homes, usually to be taken care of by grandparents.
Ever since China’s reform and opening up, some 260 million people have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life. One of the biggest negative effects of the “greatest migration in human history” has been, in my view, the “left-behind children” phenomenon. There are estimated to be more than 60 million of them.
China’s hukou or family registry system, introduced by Mao Zedong in the 1950s as a way to control the flow of population, divides China into a rural and urban population, with the latter enjoying much better access to education, health care and other social services. At first, migrant children were not even allowed to enter local schools. Slowly, restrictions were relaxed, but many obstacles remain and migrant schools exist precariously in a grey area.
Mrs Ma’s decision to return home, leaving behind her husband in the capital, was made after many sleepless nights. Nine years ago, when the couple first ventured away from their rural home, they left their son, only six at the time, in the care of her parents.
Today, Mr Ma makes about 10,000 yuan (HK$12,600) a month fixing household electronic appliances, more than double his income as a village electrician.
But the Mas only see their son twice a year, once during the Lunar new year in their village and once in the summer when Xiaobao visits them for his vacation. I have noticed that he behaves like a guest in his parents’ little one-bedroom flat.
I sympathise greatly with the Mas. My own family was also a victim of the hukou system: my father worked in another city. Until his retirement, we rarely saw him.
In his book on left-behind children, author Ye Jingzhong discusses the many negative effects: these children don’t always get proper care, guidance or help from their guardians, who are usually their poorly educated grandparents; they often feel lonely and are more likely to suffer from mental illness, compared with those living with their parents; and they are extremely vulnerable to crime, especially sexual assault.
Aware of such perils, in 2010, Unicef started a pioneering child welfare model called the “barefoot social worker”, inspired by Mao’s “barefoot doctor” – doctors with basic training who provided medical care to millions of farmers. In this modern version, someone in the community is given some basic training as a social worker to provide these needy children with help. The programme, in cooperation with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, has proved effective.
Yet, it’s clear that the government has not done nearly enough. Perhaps the authorities’ wish to maintain stability means they seek to prevent thousands of farmers rushing to the city. Perhaps our leaders do not fully realise the negative long-term effects on the left-behind children. If their problems persist into adulthood, how can we expect to build a “harmonious society”?
The government needs to take urgent action. It should offer financial incentives to local schools that take in migrant children or simply set quotas. Given that local schools cannot accommodate all the children, schools for children of migrant workers should be given legal status. Instead of simply shutting down substandard schools, authorities should offer support. And finally, the hukou system must be abolished.
Back in my neighbourhood, an air of sadness hangs over Mr Ma and his home; outside, where the family had spent many happy hours, little Qiuyu’s bike now stands forlornly.
Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator