Sichuan earthquake leaves migrant workers worrying about left-behind children

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In Qingshen village, with some of the grandparents taking care of left-behind children and the NGO members who help them out.
One of the heart-breaking stories that I read in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake was of a grandfather who rushed to the village school only to find that its three stories had collapsed.  After tugging futilely at the giant concrete slabs for a while he realized that his grandchild and all the classmates were lost.  A careful reader looking through similar stories of personal loss would have realized that often it was a grandparent who rushed to the school.  The reason for this is that in rural Sichuan, as in much of rural China, there are many households in which both parents have gone as migrant laborers to the coast leaving children in the care of grandparents. These kids are known in Chinese as “left-behind children.”

 Watching on TV the scenes of destruction and the rescue effort, I couldn’t help thinking about the millions of Sichuan parents working in coastal cities who were desperate to get news of their family.  With the breakdown in communications and transportation in the most affected areas, I am sure many parents went days before they got firm information about whether their child was safe.

This pattern of migration in which young adults move while grandparents and children are left behind is not unique to China, but I think it is more prevalent in China than anywhere else.  It has an economic logic to it, but it also has a large social cost.  Sichuan is an important agricultural area of China famous for its pigs and many other products.  But this basin in the west of the country had become over-populated with around 100 million people.  There are many more economic opportunities in coastal cities: men migrate to work construction, young women to work in factories or restaurants and hotels.  In some of the famous productive cities of Guangdong, such as Dongguan or Shenzhen, nearly 80% of the population consists of migrants, many of them from Sichuan. 

While migration offers better earning opportunities for young adults, it is difficult and expensive to bring the whole family.  Often husband and wife get jobs in different cities.  It is difficult to get formally registered in many cities, and probably more of a barrier is the economic cost of bringing parents and children to the cities.  It makes more sense to leave grandparents behind.  If still able, they can work the family land.  Or they can rent it out to another farmer and oversee the production.  The children can go to school in the village. 

This is a sensible economic choice.  Roughly every other household in rural China has at least one adult member who has gone to the city to work.  Their remittances back now make up 30% of rural income, so households would be much poorer without their contribution.  For a big province like Sichuan, the out-migration has probably reduced the population by 10 million.  The total rural-urban migration during the reform period has been on the order of 150-200 million people, so this is the largest mass migration in history.

Last December I traveled through rural Sichuan Southwest of Chengdu.  The center of the recent earthquake was in Wenchuan, which is Northwest of Chengdu.  In Qingshen village, half of all the children in the elementary school are left-behind children with no parent in the home.  The reason that we were visiting Qingshen is that we had helped arrange a small grant for a local NGO that had designed a program to help these children.  The NGO had built a community center for the kids with recreational space, but also computers and connection to the internet. 

I talked to the grandparents whose grandchildren were benefiting from the project.  They were very frank: they themselves had little education, knew nothing about computers or the internet.  So, they were not able to help their grandchildren with homework and developing the skills needed in a modern economy.  This NGO project not only provided facilities, but on weekends it organized college students to come down from Chengdu on a volunteer basis to do social outings and homework support in the way that parents normally would.  One old man was very eloquent about how poorly his grandson had been doing with social and academic skills and how this engagement with college students had completely turned things around.

I am happy to report that when we checked up on the left-behind children of Qingshen everyone was safe.  Their area felt the powerful quake; some buildings collapsed, but fortunately no one was killed.  But the parents of these children and many other children around Sichuan would not have known this for some time.  So, the earthquake – aside from being a terrible tragedy for the area that was devastated – is also a reminder about some of the social costs that go hand-in-hand with rapid economic development in China. 

The NGO project in Qingshen helps make a bad situation better, but in the longer term it is in China’s interest to support the relocation of whole families to urban areas.  China’s policies are evolving to be more supportive of rural families permanently resettling in urban areas, and in a future blog we will take up some of these changes.  

In my December trip to Sichuan I was impressed with the philanthropy and volunteerism that was helping with the important social problem of left-behind children.  That spirit of philanthropy and volunteerism has obviously been in strong evidence as all of China has pitched into to help with the rescue and relief effort. 


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