Fang Tiantian still recalls the pain she felt as a young child when her mother and father packed their bags and left her in her village in southwestern China.
The 30-year-old understands why her parents did it. In the early ’90s, her home region of Guizhou province was bitterly poor, and the only route out of poverty seemed to be moving to find work in the cities.
But the hurt Fang experienced was real. With only her elderly grandparents to look after her, she was largely left to raise herself. She became stoic and withdrawn, knowing she couldn’t rely on anyone else to solve her problems.
“When I had my first period, I thought I was dying,” she says.
Yet over 20 years later, Fang would end up following in her parents’ footsteps. Soon after giving birth, she and her husband returned to their jobs in Shanghai — leaving their young daughter behind in Guizhou, over 2,000 kilometers away.
It’s a pattern that’s repeating itself across the Chinese countryside. Decades after China’s first wave of mass migration began in the ’90s, a combination of economic and policy barriers still make it impossible for many migrant workers to bring their children with them to the cities.
As a result, millions of parents — many children of migrant workers themselves — have to live apart from their offspring to continue working higher-paying urban jobs. The trend is creating a second generation of left-behind kids that experts worry will sustain lasting emotional scars.
Though the number of left-behind children has declined over recent years, the figure is still enormous. As of August 2018, just under 7 million minors were living in a different city to both their parents, down from 9 million in 2016, according to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. Millions — possibly tens of millions — more live apart from one parent, though Chinese authorities no longer classify these children as left-behind.
“They (left-behind kids) are a large group, and one that’s likely to exist for a long time,” says Lü Lidan, an assistant professor of demography at Beijing’s Renmin University of China.
For many migrant workers, China’s household registration — or hukou — system remains an impassable obstacle preventing them from moving their families to the city. Though rural Chinese are free to relocate to urban areas, they’re often unable to acquire permanent resident status.
A left-behind child poses for a photo in her bedroom in Lunhe Village, Guizhou province, 2018. Chen Jie/People Visual
This restricts migrants’ access to a range of crucial public services — including education, health care, and housing — making it practically impossible to support a family on a working-class salary.
“Their care and housing resources in the city are insufficient, so their children have to stay at home,” says Lü. “Those who try to stay in the city … only end up as the urban poor.”
In some regions, family separations have become a fact of life, with parents and children no longer considering it unusual to live apart for most of the year.
Fang describes her life as “typical” of a child from her part of Guizhou. After dropping out of school early, she moved to Shanghai as a 16-year-old to work at a beauty salon. She returned to her hometown in her early 20s to get married and give birth to her daughter, but departed again once her daughter had turned 2.
At the time, Fang never gave much thought to staying with her child in Guizhou. Despite her own unhappy childhood, she felt leaving home for work was just what people did.
“Almost everyone in my beauty shop was raised by their grandparents,” says Fang. “And all of our children are now being cared for by our parents back home.”
Yet successive studies have found that — no matter how normal they perceive their situation — left-behind children can suffer severe psychological damage. Their emotional states are significantly more negative on average than other children, and they find it much harder to communicate, researchers have found. Many feel deep resentment toward their parents, with more than 10% describing their mother and father as “dead.”
A boy watches TV alone at home, in Bijie, Guizhou province, Aug. 2, 2018. Luo Binhao/People Visual
For Fang, the wake-up call came in 2015, when she saw the shocking news that four left-behind children from rural Guizhou had killed themselves by drinking pesticide. The fact the children, who were aged between 5 and 13, were from her home province struck her even harder, she says.
“I couldn’t calm down,” says Fang. “How desperate must a child be to say that death had been his dream for many years?” That evening, she called her daughter as soon as she finished work, to check she was OK.
Many in China reacted in the same way. The incident sparked a national outcry, pushing the plight of left-behind children up China’s political agenda. In early 2016, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, set a target of “significantly reducing” the number of left-behind children by 2020.
Over the following years, Chinese authorities passed a series of reforms designed to encourage rural families to stay together. A “rural revitalization” strategy has attempted to create jobs in the countryside, with local authorities providing support to migrants wishing to move home and start their own businesses.
The government also made landmark changes to the hukou system, ordering cities with populations between 1 million and 3 million to allow migrants to register as permanent residents. Larger cities, especially megacities like Beijing and Shanghai, maintain barriers to hukou registration, but have been told to make it easier for migrant children to attend school.
These efforts have achieved some success. In 2019, an estimated 8.5 million migrant workers moved back to their hometowns, compared with 2.4 million in 2015. Others have returned to cities in their home provinces, as employers increasingly relocate from China’s coastal regions to lower-cost central and western provinces.
But there’s a long way to go. Given the dramatic disparity in development levels between China’s regions — Shanghai’s per capita GDP, for example, is three times higher than Guizhou’s — migrants are often reluctant to return to their home regions.
And raising children as a migrant in China’s major cities remains just as challenging as before. Though many parents try, they’re often forced to send their kids away once they finish primary school due to a chronic lack of available slots in public middle schools.
Each year, around 70,000 middle school students leave the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen and return to rural China. These “returned children” now account for over 20% of students at rural boarding schools, where they’re often vulnerable to abuse and bullying.
In some villages, meanwhile, family separations remain the norm. Liu Yue, who runs a rural kindergarten in the central Henan province, estimates that 70 of her roughly 100 students are left-behind children.
Though Liu’s husband and many of her neighbors cross the country for work, the 27-year-old hasn’t considered leaving. A former left-behind child, she says she could never part from her 2-year-old daughter.
Liu Yue takes a selfie with her daughter. Courtesy of Liu Yue
“Half of my friends here won’t leave their children behind, because we all know how we felt when our parents were far away,” says Liu. “We don’t want our children to experience the same thing.”
As a child, Liu only saw her father once a year, and she vividly recalls the excitement she felt ahead of his brief visits home — and her crippling shyness once he arrived.
“On the first day, I’d only dare to look at him from a distance,” says Liu. “On the second day, I’d be brave enough to call him Dad.”
In hindsight, Liu believes her father’s long absences contributed to the insecurity she often feels. “I’m afraid of taking risks,” she says. “I feel like no one will catch me if I fall.”
Liu says she can easily tell whether or not a new student has parents at home. Like her, the left-behind kids lack confidence, but are resilient and self-reliant.
“If they fall, they won’t cry. They just get up, brush the dirt off their clothes, and keep going,” she says. “It’s like watching myself when I was a kid.”
Liu Yue poses for a photo with her daughter and her students at her kindergarten in rural Henan province. Courtesy of Liu Yue
The principal does her best to provide these students with the emotional support they need. Because they’re starved of intimacy at home, they’re often eager to hug and spend time with their teachers, she says.
“I understand that left-behind children need more communication and physical contact, so I try to give them more hugs every day,” she says.
The good thing, Liu says, is that modern technology has made it easier for parents to stay in touch with their children, even if they live over 1,000 kilometers away. She takes reams of photos of her students during class, sharing them with the children’s parents via the social app WeChat each Friday.
Because of this, the second generation of left-behind children has a much closer relationship with their parents than her generation did, according to Liu.
“The parents are constantly buying things for their children online and having them delivered to the village, and they can also video chat almost every day if they want,” says Liu. “It’s not like it was for us. I could rarely even hear my father’s voice back then.”
Documentary maker Jiang Nengjie messes around with a left-behind child featured in one of his projects, in 2017. Courtesy of Jiang Nengjie
Others, however, are less optimistic. Jiang Nengjie, a 35-year-old filmmaker from the central Hunan province, says in some ways it’s harder for left-behind children now than it was when he was a child.
When Jiang was born in the late ’80s, China’s factory boom had yet to take off. It wasn’t until 1995 when his mother decided to leave the village. She found a factory job in Guangzhou, some 600 kilometers away, with Jiang’s father following her a few years later.
“I was 10 when my mother left, and our parent-child relationship was already established,” says Jiang. “But the children I film now, their parents left before they turned 1.”
Over recent years, Jiang has been documenting the lives of dozens of families in his home village. Unlike Liu, he sees no evidence that former left-behind children are less likely to abandon their children once they become parents.
“These parents still don’t care about their children,” Jiang says. “They think that as long as the children have enough food and clothes, it’s all good.”
Jiang, however, finds such attitudes incomprehensible. As a child, he recalls the anguish he and his siblings would feel whenever it was time for his mother to return to Guangzhou, knowing it would be nearly 12 months until they next saw her.
“Every time, we had breakfast together at home, and no one spoke during that meal. Then, we’d stand at the door, watching her leaving without saying a word,” says Jiang. “I would never leave my children behind.”
A still from Jiang Nengjie’s 2014 documentary “Children at a Village School.” From Douban
In Shanghai, Fang and her husband have been doing a lot of soul-searching over the past few years. The beautician works 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days per week, which leaves her little time to call her daughter. They only see each other once a year, when the salon gives Fang 10 days off to return to Guizhou during Lunar New Year.
“Every time I go back, I feel that my girl has grown up a lot, but that we communicate less and less,” says Fang.
During the pandemic, Fang realized she needed to make a change. With much of China introducing lockdown measures during last year’s Spring Festival, she ended up spending over two months with her daughter.
During this period, the mother was troubled to see her 9-year-old child steal money from her grandparents and then lie about the theft. She also realized her daughter had never been taught to say no to strangers.
Fang also noticed, meanwhile, that some villagers had moved back home and were making a living selling farm produce via livestreaming platforms. She had a serious talk with her husband, and they finally agreed to take the plunge: After next month’s Spring Festival, they’ll return to Guizhou together.
“In the past, my parents had no option but to work in the city,” says Fang. “But now we have ways to make money at home. So why should I leave my daughter behind?”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A boy studies at school in rural Chongqing, March 2017. Li Xiangbo/People Visual)