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    How Accurate Is China’s 2016 Figure for Left-Behind Children?

    Children of migrant workers have decreased from 61 million to 9 million since 2012.

    There are more than 9 million left-behind children in rural China, according to the latest figure announced on Wednesday. But compared to the previous number, 52 million left-behind children have apparently disappeared.

    This year’s survey, beginning in March, was conducted by the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) with support from 26 other departments. Ni Chunxia, the vice director of social affairs at the MCA, called the survey the first comprehensive census of left-behind children of 2016. Ni added that the government would use the new census data as a reference point for future policies.

    The last authoritative figure before this year’s survey was from the All-China Women’s Federation’s 2013 report, which put the total at 61 million left-behind children under the age of 18 in rural areas — or 37.7 percent of all of China’s rural children.

    Though the previous figure is an estimate based on the sixth national census in 2010, the huge difference between the two figures — the latter being 52 million less — raises some questions.

    In response to the discrepancy, the Ministry of Civil Affairs explained that the definition of “left-behind children” has changed, with the age range narrowing from including kids under 18 to kids under 16.

    According to a ministry spokesman, this is consistent with China’s labor law and civil law, which stipulate that adolescents above 16 and under 18 who work to support themselves are seen as legally autonomous citizens. This is also a more suitable model for modern Chinese society, the spokesman said.

    In addition, previous definitions of left-behind children included children with one migrant worker parent, but the current definition only includes children whose parents are both migrant workers, or children who have one parent who is a migrant worker and another who is incapable of providing care. This standard is based on the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency law, which stipulates that adolescents under 16 should not be left alone without a guardian.

    “The statistical specification is just a game of numbers,” Xiong Yihan, an associate professor of international relations and public affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. Xiong added that whatever the agreed-upon figure for left-behind children, it has no real impact on solving the problem.

    Sociologist Li Tao, who studied left-behind children in rural Sichuan province, told Sixth Tone that the estimate made by the All-China Women’s Federation carries less weight because it comes from a non-government body. He added that a definitive, government-issued figure on left-behind children collected through scientific means has greater potential to encourage officials to take action.

    Li said more action must be taken to solve the problem. “You can’t fix a social problem by changing your standards and reforming your criteria,” he said.

    According to the MCA spokesman, local governments have effectively enforced policies that benefit rural left-behind children. Some, for example, have helped poor families by allowing their children to go to school where their parents live and work, regardless of whether their hukou, or household registration document, would legally allow them to do so.

    Li said that instead of attributing the dramatic decrease to effective policies — which stretches reason — authorities should pay more attention to the detailed figures so as to provide better service and support to the children and their families.

    Of the 9 million rural left-behind children, 89.3 percent live with their grandparents, while 360,000 don’t live with a guardian at all and 16,000 have dropped out of school.

    “In the survey, we found that the absence of a guardian is the key issue,” the spokesman said. “Some migrant worker parents don’t take responsibility for their children and leave them alone at home. They may seldom return or communicate with their children. Some might not even contact their kids for a whole year.”

    The MCA launched a project on Wednesday specifically targeting rural left-behind children. The project’s aim is to ensure that every left-behind child has a guardian by the end of 2017.

    Local civil affairs departments will be required to conduct surveys periodically and report homes with no guardians present to police departments. The parents of children found to be living in these situations will forced to return home and fulfill their responsibilities as caregivers.

    (Header image: Left-behind children in a student dormitory at an elementary school in Feidong County, Anhui province, Aug. 81, 2011. Wu Fang/VCG)