But there’s more at stake than just the children’s welfare. The left-behind crisis could also spell disaster for China’s economy.
Thanks to its history of population control, China already has a low proportion of children overall. In 1980, the country adopted a controversial policy limiting families to one child each. Although the one-child policy was abolished last year, today only about 17 percent of Chinese are under the age of 15 (compared with the worldwide average of 26 percent). At the same time, the number of Chinese over age 60 is increasing.
This—along with the fact that migrants have been deterred from bringing their kids to the country’s urban areas—has many experts worried. In future decades there may not be enough young, educated workers in China’s cities to replace those who are retiring—and to produce the goods that drive the nation’s economy.
Fortunately, China is starting to take notice of its youngest, most vulnerable people. Officials recently announced that they’re conducting the country’s first census of left-behind children to determine their exact numbers and location.
And earlier this year, China’s government issued a directive setting out guidelines for the care of left-behind children. The order calls on rural governments and schools to work together to look after young residents, while urging parents to ensure their children are in good hands if they must leave.
Local communities are also stepping up. Social workers are working with thousands of left-behind children, making sure they have the care they need. An expanding network of Chinese college students has also begun regularly visiting rural schools to mentor left-behind children and help them with homework.
Such measures are a step in the right direction, yet many people are calling on the government to do more, starting with sweeping reforms to the hukou system. Changes to the policy have been in discussion for years, but officials have yet to act.
“The hukou system is unfair and unsustainable,” says the University of Washington’s Chan. “Ultimately, China needs to reform or abolish the system if it’s to become a modern country.”
Study author Chen agrees. In his report, he calls for ending the policies that keep migrant parents away from their children. “Every child,” he says, “should be given an environment in which they can prosper.”