The “left-behind children” in China’s countryside know their parents’ cellphone or factory dorm numbers by heart. But when they call them, the phones are usually turned off or ring on and on.
“My parents had to work overtime in the factory so they didn’t make it home for New Year’s,” said Yang Weibo, 16, who spent the Chinese holiday with his grandmother. “My mom called to say she was heartbroken. I miss her.”
Lu Siqin can’t help but cry whenever someone mentions her parents. The 13-year-old doesn’t remember the last time she saw her father. He left home to work on a construction site when she was 5. Her mother is deaf and mentally disabled. Siqin grew up in a world with few sounds of life. The only person she can talk to a little is her frail 73-year-old grandmother, who is nearly blind.
In the two teens’ classrooms, about half the children raise their hands when asked how many are in a similar situation. Their parents are spread all over the world’s most populous country, working on construction sites and factory floors, and in restaurants and timber mills.
As capitalism transforms this nominally communist nation, it has quietly reshaped the lives of China’s rural young, creating a new underclass called liu shou er tong, or the “left-behind children.” An entire generation is growing up without parents in deserted villages populated mostly by the very young and elderly.
Here in Sichuan province, in this cluster of villages that make up Qingshen town, cornstalks and bamboo groves shadow abandoned country roads and barnyard animals haunt empty farmhouses.
At Siqin’s house, neighborhood dogs roll around in the courtyard waiting for scraps from her grandmother. An old man in a faded Mao suit takes slow drags from a bamboo pipe. A little boy stares at the smoke.
According to official figures, an estimated 120 million Chinese farmers have left their birthplaces in search of work in the cities. But some say the number could be as high as 150 million and is expected to rise to 300 million by 2020.
As this vast army of cheap labor moves freely, an estimated 20 million children are left behind, some to fend for themselves. Many don’t see their parents for years.
People the world over are familiar with the heartache of having to leave loved ones behind as they seek economic opportunities elsewhere. This is particularly true for Latin Americans working in the United States, whose children may be raised by grandparents back home. What’s different about China is the scale of the phenomenon and the number of temporary orphans it has created.
Also, the Chinese are making this sacrifice within their own borders instead of moving to another country, throwing into sharp relief the enormous gap between China’s rich cities and poor countryside.
“The scale of this current human migration and its impact on the Chinese family is unprecedented,” said Cao Jingqing, a rural affairs expert at the Huadong University of Science and Technology in Shanghai. “This problem is likely to continue for a long time to come.”
The separation is particularly jarring in a culture that historically values the tight-knit family. Unlike many Western cultures, the Chinese, particularly those in rural areas, traditionally have lived with extended families under one roof and died where they were born. The restrictive residency policies of the communist era further tied people to the land, making mobility a privilege for the elite.
“When I was young, people rarely left home. No matter how poor, the family stayed together,” said Zhong Dajun, an independent research analyst based in Beijing who specializes in rural issues. “Now separation is the norm. The traditional sense of kinship and family ties is definitely fading fast.”
In contrast to the spoiled “little emperors” of China’s cities, the left-behind children have become orphans of a transitional economy, abandoned by parents making the difficult decision to break up the family in order to better provide for it.
“My father and I are like strangers,” said Chen Yongqiang, 14. He was only a few months old when his father left to work on a construction site in the far western border province of Xinjiang.
His mother also periodically leaves home in search of work and returns mostly around the Chinese New Year. “I envy children whose parents are home. I want my father to come back and work around here. He just says he can make more money far away.”
Teachers at Nancheng Middle School in the heart of Sichuan, China’s most populous province, say the plight of these lonesome children affects their grades and psychological health.
“Most of these students tend to become antisocial and introverted,” said Liang Chenggang, assistant principal of the school. “But in times of conflict, they tend to explode and react in violent extremes.” To help them cope, the school has set up counseling programs and outreach efforts to make parents more aware of the problem.
“These children are so sad,” said Yan Zhen, a school counselor. “They have to learn early to fend for themselves. There’s one family where the grandparents are taking care of four children from three of their sons. All of them are away at work. At best they can make sure the kids are clothed and fed. But they can’t fill the emotional emptiness.”
Nationwide, officials are increasingly concerned about the prospects of the children, many of them disillusioned, and their potential threat to social stability.
Already, they have started to show up in rising crime statistics. Last year, state media reported that a 13-year-old “left-behind girl” kidnapped and killed a 5-year-old girl, allegedly in revenge for being molested by the victim’s father.
In another case, a 12-year-old boy broke into a neighbor’s house at night and tried to kill the occupants. He reportedly told authorities that he missed his father and thought committing a serious crime could get his attention and bring him home.
The vast majority suffer in solitude.
Yu Qing, 14, lived alone for a year after her father took off for a job in construction on the southern island of Hainan and her mother left to work in a restaurant on the east coast.
“At night when I hear thunder, I just cover my head but I don’t cry,” Qing said. “Because I’m used to it. Most of the time I fall asleep with the TV on. So I don’t get so scared.”
But after a year she gave up and moved in with her aunt and uncle, beekeepers who are frequently not at home.
“My parents are away making money so I can live a better life,” she said. “But I don’t care about living a better life. I just want them to be home by my side.”