China: Children who are left behind

On November 12, several days before the International Children's Day, an explosion erupted in an illegal fire cracker factory in Guangxi which resulted in 2 children workers dead and 11 others injured.

According to the Southern Weekend's report, these children victims were left behind by their parents, who are migrant workers and have to work in cities all year long to earn money and support their families. They lived with their aging grandparents and struggled to work before and after school time to earn some pocket money for snacks.

The children workers phenomenon is not rare in Yanghui village where the tragedy took place. The lack of government regulation is part of the reason behind, but on the other, “if these children have their parents around and being taken good care of, we will not have such a big tragedy,” Yang Youji, the village party chief, was quoted as saying.

According to the 2005 population census, there were 120 million farmers who worked or did business in cities, and the number of children they left behind amounted to 20 million. 88.2% left-behind children could only contact their parents by phone, but 53.5% of them talked with their parents in less than three minutes.

Tong Dahuan, a Chinese blogger in Tianya, pointed out another social issue in this fire-cracker incident related blog post, “Who Should Apologize for the Tragedy of the Left-behind Children”:


In the past 2 years, surveys conducted in cities like Beijing and Shanghai showed that the crime rate of the second generation of migrant workers (the children of migrant workers) is three times higher than their local peers who are resident certificate holders. The bitter destiny of left-behind and migrant children is leading us to an unpredictable future.

Tong argued that it is the unfair education system that resulted in this kind of tragedy.


Hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers go to work in cities, but their children are often excluded by the cities they work in, or they are charged with higher tuition fees. There are no schools that are set specially for these children of migrant workers (migrant children schools are frequently shut down by education authorities in the name of substandard education conditions). Furthermore, under the dual systems of the resident registration plus student registration certificate (which shows the region the student geographically belongs to), even if the migrant worker children finish senior high school with great efforts and hardship, they can still be rejected from partaking the national college entrance exam. All these unfavorable factors lead to their separation from their migrant workers parents at an early age, who later become left-behind children with virtually no parents.

Tong said there have been a lot of criticism against the government’s outdated residents certificate system and education system since 1997, but there seemed almost no progress on these two issues.


China’s current residents registration system and education system have seriously infringed upon its citizens’s human rights, human morality, as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of Children which the Government signed in 1990 and the National People’s Congress approved in 1991 and which took effect since March 1 1992.


I want to ask, is it for the ultimate interest of children that the government doesn’t give children equal opportunities to receive education and take part in the national college entrance exam? Is it for the ultimate interest of children that the government separates children from their parents with the tool of residents registration system?

Another Tianya Blogger, Li Hui, questioned why the children workers are always the left-behind children?


Why the illegal children workers are always the “left-behind” children? What underlies this issue is not only the illegal employment of children workers, but more profoundly, it is an issue caused by China’s rural-urban dual structure, and the serious imbalance of education resources.

In the Southern Weekend report's comment section, many netizens left their comments, some blamed the residents registration system as the root of this tragedy.

For example, Yanchenyu said,


The residents registration system is the root cause of the left-behind children tragedy. Urban population are enjoying the prosperity brought about by migrant workers, but they don’t provide due protection on migrant workers’ safety, neither do they provide education to migrant workers’ children.

li101947 questioned the role of law enforcement:


How many children have suffered the tragedy? How many more are going to suffer the tragedy? Can’t there be organizations and regulations to safeguard these children’s rights and benefits? What have law enforcement done?


  • Tamie

    Why are there children in china that are suffering like that? Children should not have to work to get food, that is the adults job to do for the child. Why are the parents going as migrant workers? The chinese government should be able to applie jobs for its citizen easily. Why can’t they? Why cant china do anything for its people? is china so little and poor? What china can do to make thier poeple all work together (there are certainly enought people) is to offer something. Offer jobs, and homes and food. Offer them security. there should not be poverty in such a grand country. Children are your next generation. They should be rightfully taught, with a good education, they should not have to fight to learn. Children should not have to struggle because their parents are un-able to care for them because their goverment is too snobby to see them.

    • Dear Tamie,

      Thanks for partaking in this discussion. What you mentioned also worry Chinese too. As you saw from the post, the problems were deeply rooted and unless we have a thorough political upheaval, we can’t have real reforms on either the educational system or the household registration system. The education resources are unfaily allocated and due to house registraiton system, farms are farmers and citizens are citizens, and farmers are pratically discriminated by urban citizens. So when these farmers go to seek a living in cities and bring their kids with them, their kids can’t be fairly treated in city schools as their city peers. They have to leave their children behind.

  • As far as I know, for a farmer to change his/her household registration and become an ‘urban citizen’, one legal way is to buy a property under his/her name, which costs millions of renminbi.

  • Phil

    The government’s hukou system was created to prevent over migration in big cities. There are many rural migrants who cannot find jobs in cities and end up begging. If it wasn’t for that system, many more would end up in the streets and would cause even more crime. If these people can’t support their child living in rural China, they probably wouldn’t be able to afford their living expenses in big cities. The article also mentioned that the accident happened in an illegal factory, so people who decided to work there knew that they probably wouldn’t have the same safety standards as officially run ones.

    • Dear Phil,

      Thanks for partaking in this discussion. As you might have already noticed these farmers couldn’t support their family by farming in their own land so they decided to move to work in cities, in the hope that they may earn bigger money. But the reality often turns out disappointing. In other words, these poor farmers would rather try their luck in cities than be stuck in their farmland by generations.

      For their left-behind children, they will try virtually anything to earn pocket money and fulfill their appetite. If they were with their parents and under appropriate supervision, this tragedy would not have happened. It was the Kukou system that cruelly separates parents from taking care of their children.

    • Your comment inspired me into another hypothesis: if farmers could sustain themselves in their farmland, why bother to leave their children behind and seek a living in cities? One friend told me his father only earned less than RMB 1k per month, and he has to pay a lot for his kid’s compulsory education, so he goes to nearby town to seek temporary work now and then, which brings him a nominal income of c. RMB50 per day. It’s cheap labor, but that’s how most Chinese farmers toil and pay their children’s tuition. ..

  • Tamie

    Thats not fair…its sterotyped then…kinda. In a more..resolute kinda way. Hmmm…I would guess that people who are farmers are farmers their whole lives unless they can somehow buy another title? And even if they do they are still seen as farmers arn’t they? I wish that people could be who they want to be, not just be born into a life they may be unhappy with…Im not trying to be a dreamer but i wish that there was a way where someone could make life easier on the people who are slighted. It all comes down to one thing eh? People live the best they can under the government that rules them…

    • Dear Tamie,

      Your empathy is deeply appreciated. Chinese farmers are satisifed with their living condition, but they hope their children can lead better lives than themselves, and they know the power of education can change their children’s destinies. So they work harder to pay their children’s tuition fee. But they didn’t imagine their good intent could result in tragedies as mentioned in this article…

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