Left-behind children in China

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The left-behind children in China (simplified Chinese: 留守儿童; traditional Chinese: 留守兒童; pinyin: liúshǒu'értóng), also called "stay-at-home children", are children who remain in rural regions of China while their parents leave to work in urban areas. In many cases, these children are taken care of by relatives, usually by grandparents or family friends, who remain in the rural regions. These children are often categorized as "left-behind" because the rural regions they reside in often lack social and economic infrastructures that are more readily available and accessible in urban areas.[1][2][3]

Many of these children face developmental and emotional challenges as a result of the limited interaction with their biological parents.[4][3] As of 2017, there are approximately 69 million children left behind. The lack of infrastructure and parental support have led to a host of additional challenges for left-behind children like quality education, physical well-being, and healthy social relationships.[5][6]

Owing to the country's Hukou (household registration) system, Chinese left-behind children are confronted with issues regarding public school enrollment. As problems concerning education have multiplied, some cities have implemented a school enrollment point system, which hampers chances of migrant and left-behind children to acquire the learning they need. Combined with China's “point system for household registration,” a host of complications for migrant parents and left-behind children have been created.[7]


Most migrants leave their rural homes to seek work in urban areas and in industries that require lower levels of education such as manufacturing, construction, mining, and the service industry. These migrants often leave their children behind due to the economic and social restraints involved in migrating with children. One constraint is the high standard of living in most cities, making it difficult for parents to support themselves and their children. Likewise, the Hukou system prevents rural children from receiving social benefits in urban regions like education and healthcare. The left-behind children of migrant parents are often under the guardianship of grandparents and extended kin members.[8]

Drivers of rural-to-urban migration[edit]

The conversion of agricultural land for commercial use, along with the continuous and comprehensive development of the Reform and Open Door Policy in China that encourages rural peasants to migrate, increased the unemployment rate among rural workers. This prompted a growing number of rural peasants to leave their hometowns and search for better-paying jobs in urban areas.[9]

With the increasing unemployment rate and labor demands in cities, rural-to-urban migration was exacerbated as the Hukou system slackened. The Hukou system was enacted in the 1950s intending to control the mass movement of rural-urban migrants in China. The Hukou system is a household registration system which determines what social benefits (education, housing and medical services) a person may receive. When residing outside of the original place of origin, such benefits and services will not be awarded. The Hukou system prevented many families from moving to urban areas. The reforms implemented in the 1980s eased the registration system to promote development in China.[10][11][12]


Mental and physical health[edit]

Approximately 50% of the "left-behind" children in China go through melancholy and apprehension, in comparison to 30% of their urban peers. Likewise, they are more likely to suffer from mood swings and trauma. They typically have inferiority complexes, lower sense of worth and lesser self-confidence. Most of them lack a sense of security and are too afraid or anxious to interact with other people.[13][14]

Physical well-being is also significantly lower among left-behind children as they were more likely to have an unhealthy diet, lower levels of physical activity, and more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol. These particular habits have contributed to higher rates of stunted growth and unhealthy body weights.[15]


Countless left-behind children become reluctant and unenthusiastic to go to school. Many become truants and some of them drop out of school. The children's lackluster attitude towards school restricts their social mobility and keeps them the cycle of poverty.[16] Generally, these children have lower educational goals and are less likely to complete compulsory education.[17] They likewise show consistent low scores on primary school exams which potentially deter chances of a better future.[18]

These children also have difficulties with student-teacher relationships. Additionally, when parents migrate, these children's participation in housework and farming increases, leading to lesser time spent for academic pursuits.[19]

A 2012 study using longitudinal data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey concluded that "parental migration has not given children left behind a significant advantage in educational prospects as their parents had hoped."[20] Adverse educational impacts are especially evident for boys.[21]


To encourage educational parity and provide equal opportunities at the same time assure migrant children's right to acquire essential education, a unified national student registration system has been set up in primary and secondary schools, and procedure for school transfers can now be conducted online.[22]

In 2011, a rural school lunch program serving 20 million students daily was implemented.[23]

Data-driven analysis to determine the most effective interventions in rural education and child welfare is being developed by Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Science's Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, in Beijing have partnered with Stanford's Rural Education Action Program (REAP). Studies indicated that although rural children had good motor skills, benefited from school lunch programs, and responded to caregiver coaching with their parents, caregiver coaching with their grandparents had little effect. A randomized trial of early childhood development centers in villages in Shaanxi Province is expected to start yielding data in 2018.[23]

The Chinese government's "National Mental Health Work Plan (2015–2020) aims to establish psychological counseling rooms in all schools and to increase awareness of psychological well-being."[24]

Social relationships[edit]

The separation between parents and left-behind children poses a challenge to their social relationships. Left-behind children are more introverted than those who grow up with their parents and are more susceptible to being bullied at school.[25]


Left-behind children suffer more major injuries than those who stay with their parents.[26] In 2012, 5 left-behind children died from carbon dioxide inhalation after lighting a fire in rubbish bin for warmth.[27][28] In 2014, 12 girls were threatened and raped by their school teachers.[29] and in 2015, 4 left-behind children living under domestic violence attempted suicide by drinking pesticide.[30][31] After the 2015 tragedy, local government officials in Bijie, which has 260,000 left-behind children, issued a request to parents to return home.[32]

The crime rate of left behind children is 70% higher than that of other juveniles.[33]

Cell phone addiction[edit]

Left-behind children spent longer time on mobile games, 19% of these spend over six hours on games, two times more than those who are with their parents. The parents fail to recognize their child's extreme phone use as an issue. To them, phones serve as “babysitters” to calm the children down and stay away from trouble.[34]

Influencing factors[edit]

The severity of the negative consequences experienced by left-behind children in China depend on the child's age, gender, and family's economic resources:[35]


Children left behind at the age of three have emotional issues while children left at the age of nine have decreased in pro-social behaviors. Additionally, children who were left in early stages in life showed lower levels of life satisfaction. These reports suggest that the younger a child is, the more likely that they suffer psychologically than children left at an older age.[citation needed]


It is common for caregivers of left-behind children to place more restrictions on girls' social activities than those of boys. The practice is an attempt to protect female children, because females are considered more vulnerable than males in many rural Chinese societies. Additionally, the level of housework required by left-behind female children increases when their parents migrate, replacing male children as the main caretaker of the household.[citation needed]


Difficult economic conditions often result in poor quality care for left-behind children. When caregivers lack the financial resources to afford school fees, nutritious food, and other basic needs, left-behind children are likely to face challenges with well-being. Lower-income households are also more likely to require left-behind children to engage in farm work, resulting in exclusion from social and academic activities.

Government and private-sector initiatives[edit]

“Guidance on how to make best use of social work professionals in the protection of rural left-behind children” has been jointly issued by the Ministries of Civil Affairs, Education and Finance, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League and the All-China Women's Federation, for the use of social work professionals who work with rural left-behind children.[36] The tasks defined in the document include:

  1. assisting in the rescue and protection work
  2. carrying out family education guidance
  3. actively providing social care services

The policy aims to

  1. strengthen the training and development of professionals
  2. actively cultivate and develop social work service institutions
  3. promote the construction of social work service stations in villages and towns, and
  4. increase the employment of social work professionals in relevant units.

Another initiative from the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) has been placement of unsupervised left-behind children in the custody of guardians. Since the campaign commenced in November 2016, 16,000 left-behind children who had dropped out of school have resumed their education, and 177,800 who were previously unregistered have been registered on national household records.

A national information management system for left-behind children has been launched. The system enables professionals to share data about the child subsistence allowance, impoverished households and people with disabilities. The system now has data on 1.3 million children with disabilities and 110,000 children of impoverished families.[37]

In Southwest China's Guizhou Province, left-behind rural children use smart wristbands with GPS for tracking and protection.[38] The local governments of Bijie city and Qianxinan Buyi, the Miao autonomous prefecture in Guizhou, spent approximately 24 million yuan (3.6 million U.S. dollars) to provide smart wristbands for more than 100,000 left-behind children in primary schools. The wristband has a GPS locator and is linked to local police databases which allows children to report emergencies.

Jack Ma has called for other entrepreneurs to make increased investments and financial contributions to rural boarding schools in their home provinces.[39]

A school in Zizhou County, Mata School, began offering weekend accommodations for its students to ensure the children have somewhere to stay.[40]

A Red Army School in Hunan which serves 70% stay-at-home students, named its school after Marshal He Long, and encourages its students by commemorating the history of the Long March.[41]

Childrens' Clubs offering "play and educational activities under the care and supervision of local volunteers" have shown positive outcomes.[42] A drop-in childrens' center in Xichehe serves 200 children.[43] A 100-square-meter children's center was built with sponsorship from the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) and the Sichuan Provincial Communist Youth League. Women between ages 19-55 are trained to serve as the center's companion mothers. Filled with picture books, sports equipment, and tables, the center is often crowded with children on weekends.[44]

International comparisons[edit]

  • AIDS orphans, children raised primarily by grandparents, mostly in Africa
  • Euro-orphan, children left behind when parents move from one E.U. member state to another for work
  • Kinship care, children in the US and Great Britain who are raised by grandparents or other relatives
  • Latchkey kid, a child who returns from school to an empty home, or a child who is often left at home alone

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Lijia Zhang, One in 60 million: Life as a 'left-behind' child in China, 21 January 2018. Retrieved 17 November 2018 from
  2. ^ John Sudworth, Counting the cost of China’s left-behind children," BBC News, 12 April 2016. Retrieved 17 November 2018
  3. ^ a b Zhao, Ke-Fu; Su, Hong; He, Li; Wu, Jia-Ling; Chen, Ming-Chun; Ye, Dong-Qing (September 2009). "Self-concept and mental health status of 'stay-at-home' children in rural China". Acta Paediatrica. 98 (9): 1483–1486. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2009.01346.x.
  4. ^ Xu Wei and Wang Xiaodong, A child's life of fear, insecurity and misery," China Daily, 18 June 2015. Retrieved 18 November 2018
  5. ^ UNICEF Annual Report 2017, "China." Retrieved 17 November 2018
  6. ^ "Migrant workers and their children". China Labour Bulletin. 2013-06-27. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  7. ^ China Development Brief, “Report discusses challenges in educating migrant and left-behind children”, 30 Mar 2017. Retrieved 20 November 2018
  8. ^ "Migrant workers and their children". China Labour Bulletin. 2013-06-27. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  9. ^ "Little match children". The Economist. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  10. ^ BBC News, "China to protect migrant workers' 'left-behind' children," 15 February 2016. Retrieved 17 November 2018 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35581716
  11. ^ Lim Yan Lian, China's migrant children dilemma," 03 February 2018. Retrieved 17 November 2018
  12. ^ "Over 60% Believe Left-behind children Problem Is Caused By Hukou System". China Development Brief. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  13. ^ Tania Branigan, China struggles with mental health problems of 'left-behind' children, The Guardian, 30 August 2014. Retrieved 17 November 2018
  14. ^ Lijia Zhang, Left-behind children a poignant reminder of the cost of China’s development," South China Morning Post, 26 May 2018. Retrieved 17 November 2018
  15. ^ David McKenzie and Serena Dong, China to migrant workers: Take your kids with you, CNN, 16 February 2016. Retrieved 18 November 2018
  16. ^ "Improving education for left-behind children". Oxfam Hong Kong. Retrieved 2018-11-18.
  17. ^ UNICEF (2014) Children in China: an atlas of social indicators. United Nations Children’s Fund
  18. ^ Hong Kong Baptist University, The impact of parental absence in rural China, March 2, 2018. Retrieved 20 November 2018
  19. ^ The Collective, Educating China’s Left-Behind Children, 9 June 2017. Retrieved 19 November 2018
  20. ^ Lu, Yao (2012-04-01). "Education of Children Left Behind in Rural China". Journal of Marriage and the Family. 74 (2): 328–341. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2011.00951.x. ISSN 0022-2445. PMC 3806142. PMID 24163479.
  21. ^ Meng, Xin; Yamauchi, Chikako (October 2017). "Children of Migrants: The Cumulative Impact of Parental Migration on Children's Education and Health Outcomes in China". Demography. 54 (5): 1677–1714. doi:10.1007/s13524-017-0613-z. ISSN 1533-7790. PMID 28936632.
  22. ^ China Development Brief, China’s Minister of Education announces reforms to ensure migrant children’s access to education, 30 Aug 2018. Retrieved 20 November 2018
  23. ^ a b Normile, Dennis; 2017 (2017-09-21). "One in three Chinese children faces an education apocalypse. An ambitious experiment hopes to save them". Science | AAAS. Retrieved 2019-12-16.
  24. ^ Jan, Catherine; Zhou, Xiaolin; Stafford, Randall S (2017-10-31). "Improving the health and well-being of children of migrant workers". Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 95 (12): 850–852. doi:10.2471/blt.17.196329. ISSN 0042-9686. PMC 5710085. PMID 29200527.
  25. ^ Cesar Chelala, The sad plight of China’s left-behind children, 03 November 2015. Retrieved 20 November 2018
  26. ^ Unintentional injuries have turned into the biggest threat to the health of Chinese children. National Working Committee on Children and Women under State Council. 2008. Accessed 21 November 2018.
  27. ^ Tom Phillips, Four 'left-behind' children in China die of poisoning after being abandoned, The Guardian, 11 June 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2018
  28. ^ Hilary Whitman, Deaths in dumpster expose plight of China's street kids,” CNN, 22 November 2012. Retrieved 21 November 2018
  29. ^ Uwen Wu, The abuse of China's 'left-behind' children, BBC News, 12 August 2013. Retrieved 21 November 2018
  30. ^ Miller, Michael E. (June 15, 2015). "The heartbreaking reason four Chinese siblings drank poison and died". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-12-16.
  31. ^ China ‘left behind’ children commit suicide, Capital News, 12 June 2015. Retrieved 21 November 2018
  32. ^ Pinghui, Zhuang (2017-09-04). "Revisiting China's 'suicide village' of left-behind children". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 2019-12-16.
  33. ^ "The Children of Migrant Workers in China". China Labour Bulletin. 2009-05-08. Retrieved 2018-11-20.
  34. ^ Cao Xinyu, Cyber addiction among rural left-behind kids, Shanghai Daily, 15 Nov 2018. Retrieved 20 November 2018
  35. ^ Lijia Zhang, Left-behind children a poignant reminder of the cost of China’s development, South China Morning Post, 26 May 2018. Retrieved 21 November 2018
  36. ^ "Government issues guidance on social workers involved in the protection of rural left-behind children - China Development Brief". China Development Brief. Retrieved 2018-11-20.
  37. ^ "China secures guardianship for 760,000 left-behind children". Xinhua - English.news.cn. 2017-11-20. Retrieved 2018-11-20.
  38. ^ "Smart wristbands protect China's left-behind children". Xinhua - English.news.cn. 2017-09-30. Retrieved 2018-11-20.
  39. ^ Gilchrist, Karen (2018-01-23). "Alibaba's Jack Ma thinks he knows how to save China's 'left-behind children' — he's asking other entrepreneurs to buy in". CNBC. Retrieved 2019-12-16.
  40. ^ Zuo, Mandy (2018-03-17). "The Chinese teacher who is 'mother' to more than 300 left-behind children". The Star Online. Retrieved 2019-12-16.
  41. ^ Jing, Liu (2016-09-02). "Long March spirit remembered in Red Army school". www.chinadaily.com.cn. Retrieved 2019-12-16.
  42. ^ Zhao, Chenyue; Zhou, Xudong; Wang, Feng; Jiang, Minmin; Hesketh, Therese (2017-11-01). "Care for left-behind children in rural China: A realist evaluation of a community-based intervention". Children and Youth Services Review. 82: 239–245. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.09.034. ISSN 0190-7409.
  43. ^ Carney, Matthew (2016-09-06). "'I'd be a burden': Meet some of China's 61 million abandoned kids". ABC News. Retrieved 2019-12-17.
  44. ^ Liu Wei, 'Companion mothers' help care for rural left-behind children,” 7 February 2018. Retrieved 21 November 2018