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Millions of Chinese children fend for themselves when parents must follow work far away

Millions of Chinese workers have poured into urban centers as their economy booms. But opportunity has come with costs for their children, home alone in rural areas without parental care. Nearly 9 million so-called “left-behind” children see their parents only a few times a year. Special correspondent Max Duncan reports in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Editor’s Note: This story was produced in cooperation with ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society, and with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • Judy Wooduff:

    When Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the beginning of a new five-year term last week, he spoke of a China focused on common prosperity, a nation where no one must be left behind.

    But while reaching that ambitious goal, there are millions of children in China who must often fend for themselves, as their parents move to China's cities to find work.

    In partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Max Duncan reports from Liangshan, China.

  • Max Duncan:

    Deep in the mountains of Southwest China, three children are used to being by themselves.

    Their parents are nowhere in sight, but the siblings are not orphans. They're among an estimated nine million minors left behind in the Chinese countryside by parents who work far away in wealthier cities. They see their parents a couple of times a year.

    Twelve-year-old Wang Bing is the most outgoing and loves to read.

  • Wang Bing:

    (Through interpreter) I think my sister is very brave. My brother is quite naughty. We know how to take care of ourselves here.

  • Max Duncan:

    The children stay in their school dormitory during the week. On weekends and school holidays, they often cook and wash for themselves.

  • Wang Bing:

    (Through interpreter) My parents are working in Guangdong Province. I don't know what they do. They don't tell me. It's boring here, just us three children. I miss them.

  • Max Duncan:

    Most so-called left-behind children rely on grandparents, but not all can provide the care needed. These children's maternal grandmother lives a 40-minute walk away along a mountain path. Sometimes, she comes to help with the farmwork and keep an eye on them, but she has other fields to tend and younger grandchildren to look after.

    In such cases, older girls often take on the role of mother.

    Fourteen-year-old Wang Ying resents the burden placed on her, and refuses to speak to her parents on the phone. She finds it too upsetting.

  • Wang Ying:

    (Through interpreter) I'm the only one who's grown up. I have to do the farmwork, and I have to study too. When my brother and sister don't do what I tell them, I miss my mom and dad. And when the farmwork is too hard for me, I miss my mom and dad.

    And, sometimes, the teacher tells me off when I don't know the answer. Then I really miss my mom and dad.

  • Max Duncan:

    The walk to school takes an hour. The family are from the Yi, one of China's largest ethnic minority groups. Under China's complex one-child policy, which ended in 2015, rural residents and ethnic minorities were allowed to have more than one child.

    Liangshan, where they live, is one of China's poorest areas. There's little meaningful work their parents could have done here. Surveys show that growing up without parents can lead to a raft of developmental problems.

    Ron Pouwels is UNICEF China's head of child protection.

  • Ron Pouwels:

    It can lead to psychological problems. It could lead to behavior problems. We know that children who are left behind do less well in school. And, yes, all these things have, of course, an impact on the later adult life of children.

  • Max Duncan:

    Over 1,000 miles southeast of Liangshan lies Huizhou, a city of almost five million people in China's manufacturing belt. And it's where the children's parents work. They make headphones and cables in a factory with hundreds of other workers from rural areas.

    For an 11-hour day, they earn around 15 U.S. dollars each. The couple are illiterate and speak little Mandarin, China's official language, so they are determined that their children will have a better chance than they did.

  • Jiajia:

    (Through interpreter) The two of us understand too well the curse of illiteracy. So long as the children don't give up, we must support their study.

  • Max Duncan:

    China's economic explosion has drawn an estimated 200 million laborers like them from the countryside. But with wages rising fast, factories like theirs are now turning to workers from poorer areas who will still accept low wages.

    The children's mother, Jiajia, constantly questions whether leaving was the right decision.

  • Jiajia:

    (Through interpreter) I worry the kids will get cold in the wind and rain, or that a stranger will come to the house. I heard rumors of people stealing children's organs. I was so worried, I couldn't sleep.

  • Max Duncan:

    The plight of left-behind children has come to the forefront of public debate in China after several unsupervised children died in another poor region in 2015.

    Some blame China's household registration system, which controls population movement by allowing people free public services like education and health care in the place where they were born, but not in the cities they move to. Authorities are reforming the system, but change has been slower in some big cities, where bringing up children is also more expensive.

    Concerned about neglected children, the government is introducing more social workers to rural areas. And they are also considering tougher measures.

    A new way that the authorities hope to tackle the problem is by punishing absent parents for neglecting those children. But many people are asking, until those parents are either allowed to bring their children with them or can find well-paid work closer to home, what choice do they really have?

    Wang Zhenyao is a former official with China's Ministry of Civil Affairs. He supports a proposed law which would criminally charge parents who leave children without proper supervision for more than six months.

  • Wang Zhenyao:

    (Through interpreter) We need to put some pressure on young parents, make them legally and socially responsible. That way, we can first set rules for the care of left-behind children starting at the most basic family level.

  • Max Duncan:

    Back in Southwest China, it's summer holidays, and the children visit their paternal grandparents, who live in an even more remote area five hours' travel away.

    It's also the time for the torch festival, the most important celebration in the Yi minority's calendar. At night, the children light torches, traditionally to scare away pests that damage crops. While their parents' absence is conspicuous, Wang Bing is happy to be with the wider family.

  • Wang Bing:

    (Through interpreter) Mom and dad aren't here, but grandma and grandpa are here, so I really enjoy it, because grandma and grandpa are just like a mom and dad to me. They're really great.

  • Max Duncan:

    Meanwhile, their mother, who has been worried about them, has decided to come back to take care of them, leaving her husband to earn money.

    To get back, she takes a 36-hour bus with other Yi workers. It's then a two-hour uphill walk from the road to the grandparents' house. She finds the children up a hill, where they have been farming. The sweets go down well with the younger children and their cousins.

    But elder sister Wang Ying is reticent, and initially speaks little to her mother.

  • Jiajia:

    (Through interpreter) I haven't seen the children in months, and they're very naughty. They're all bigger, but they're wilder. Children without parents are different to those with parents at home. They haven't been keeping clean. They're very messy.

  • Max Duncan:

    Her mother's return means some of the weight is lifted from Wang Ying's shoulders, and she's happy to slack off.

  • Wang Ying:

    (Through interpreter) Now that mom has come back, I don't have to look after my brother and sister anymore, and I don't have to do as much farmwork as I used to.

  • Max Duncan:

    But the future is far from clear. The family will struggle to subsist on one income alone.

  • Jiajia:

    (Through interpreter) I don't want to leave the children again to live like orphans. But if we can't afford to live, I would have no choice but to go back out to work.

  • Max Duncan:

    At least for the time being, Wang Ying is a little freer to be what she ultimately still is, a child.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Max Duncan in Liangshan, China.

  • Editor’s Note:

    This story was produced in cooperation with ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society, and with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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