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    Q&A With Sociologist Li Tao on Youth Gangs in Rural China

    One expert sheds light on the troubling phenomenon of left-behind children joining gangs.

    Some of the poorest areas of China’s countryside are plagued by gangs. Small rural towns like Nayong are home to thousands of children left behind by their parents who have gone away to find work in cities (see related feature). Lacking parental care and faced with an indifferent school system, left-behind children turn to their peers for support. Crime and violence is never far away.

    Li Tao, a post-doctoral researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, has carried out fieldwork in a remote corner of rural Sichuan province, spending two and a half months at a local school. In an interview with Sixth Tone, Li discusses the factors contributing to rural China’s youth crime. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Duan Yanchao: What do you think are the causes behind “Youth Gangs” in places like Nayong? 

    Li Tao: In China, there are currently more than 60 million children left behind in their rural homes as their parents seek work out of town, and more than 35 million migrant children who follow their parents and go to school away from home. In 2015, there were 277 million rural workers in China, of which 168 million were migrant workers. This number is 0.4 percent larger than that of the previous year.


    This fragmented migration is splitting families apart. In the past, most children did not go to boarding schools. At the end of each school day they would go home and learn from their families. Nowadays they learn more from the “big brothers” — or gang leaders — at school. For those children, the lack of active care and attention from school or parents has been remedied by a sense of equality and mutual support between peers. A latent, covert anti-school culture has gradually breached the boundaries of the school campus and grown into a social phenomenon. It is an inside-out process. 

    Duan Yanchao: How exactly does the lack of active care and attention manifest itself? 

    Li Tao: The only interactions the working parents have with their kids are phone calls. But that’s not enough. When they talk on the phone, the kids will tell their parents about school, and parents will tell their kids to obey their teachers, and so on. At school, instead of care and attention, there are stringent restrictions, because for schools, safety is the number-one priority. Schools also face various pressures: assessments from the education sector, teachers seeking promotions, teachers being underpaid, a lack of facilities, etc. The concentration of problems makes it impossible for the school to pay the students the attention they deserve. When the students fail to do well at school, the teachers will resort to punishment. So when the parents tell their kids to be good at school and listen to the teachers, it only makes it more painful for the kids to endure the authoritarian school system. 

    Duan Yanchao: How do the children respond?

    Li Tao: During my fieldwork, I found that a lot of left-behind children in third grade and above claimed that they did not miss their parents, simply because of the extended separation. They said that living with their parents was annoying. So they stuck together with one another to resist the lack of a proper care system. The internal management at school was increasingly militarized, and every aspect of the students’ daily schedules was heavily controlled. The smallest transgressions would cause kids to lose marks. This kind of system becomes oppressive for the children, and it is made worse by their parents often continually pressing them to obey the teachers. The kids consequently seek comfort in their peers. As gangs are formed among peers, bullying begins to occur both among the kids of the same grade and between upper and lower grades.

    Duan Yanchao: Many students we spoke with in Nayong revealed that they joined the gang because they were bullied.

    Li Tao: School bullying and gang formation were problems that tended to hide under the surface in the beginning. However, several factors can turn those problems into more overt and malignant phenomena. The lack of an impartial judicial system also sets a terrible example. For instance, a small bribe will get you out of a murder conviction. Weaknesses in the legal system will make kids think lightly of crimes: “If I kill someone and I’m not yet 16, I’ll be out in a couple of days, as will the leader of my gang.” This is a very negative chain of effects.

    Duan Yanchao: What about the relationship between the parents and the school?

    Li Tao: There used to be a closer relationship between parents and teachers. Nowadays, because of budget cuts, schools are playing an increasingly removed role when it comes to the daily life of families, and the relationships between the schools and parents are becoming increasingly cold and distant. Parents won’t even come to the school PTA meetings unless it’s to collect the subsidies for boarding students. Sometimes the school contacts out-of-town parents to discuss the education of their child, only to be told by the parents to do as they please with the child. Eventually, the parents won’t even bother to pick up the phone. It is the current socioeconomic situation and the fragmented migration of the population that have caused this terrible deterioration in the collaboration between school and parents. 

    When I was doing research in Guangxi province, education officials suggested giving the funds allocated for a juvenile detention facility to a school instead. Is it more worthwhile to build a school or a prison? Spending more money on the daily management of a school is far better than spending it on a prison. 

    In addition to the top-down management from the official education system, there need to be more volunteers. The system itself also needs to be more flexible, especially when it comes to life counselors, school facilities, and rural teachers, all of which call for fundamental changes.

    Duan Yanchao: Is there a way to achieve those fundamental changes?

    Li Tao: Some people have suggested that only one of the parents should be away for work. However, a restrictive public policy deprives people of their rights to migrate. The best way, then, is local urbanization, since the destinations of most migrant workers are cities. Local urbanization means urbanization of villages as well as rural towns. If migrant workers can earn the same money in their hometown as they are now making in the big cities, they will come back. If they can have a good income at home, no longer have to put up with the high living costs of the big cities and with being away from their families, I don’t think migrant workers would leave home anymore.

    (Header image: Teenagers stand in front of the entrance to No. 2 Middle School in Nayong County, Guizhou province, Nov. 23, 2015.  Duan Yanchao/Sixth Tone)