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China: Photo Captures Plight of 58 Million ‘Left Behind Children’

A photo showing a little girl carrying her baby brother in the classroom created a stir online in China last month. It reflects the long-standing social problem of children left behind in rural villages by their parents.

The discussion has been harmonized on online platforms and the key term “Little brother wants to sleep” (弟弟要睡了) has been filtered away and become unsearchable in major online platforms such as Sina, Baidu and Sohu since November 7, 2011, as the discussion has become more and more political. It has been estimated that there are about 58 million “left behind children” in China.

Little brother wants to sleep

The name of the 10-year-old girl in the photo [zh] is Long Zhanghuang, her two-year-old bother is Zhang Junjie. Their parent are rural migrant workers working in the city and the siblings are living with their grandparent. The class room is located in a village in Fenghuang county, Hunan province.

"Little Brother Wants to Sleep". Image from Sina Weibo user Mian Qu, also widely available in public domain.

"Little Brother Wants to Sleep". Image from Sina Weibo user Mian Qu, also widely available in public domain.

Blogger Shichengke explains [zh] the social and political context of the photo:

《弟弟要睡了》是缩影、是隐喻,也是叩问。在不经意间,它展示了不少农村空心化甚至荒漠化的冷酷现实。农村空心化的背后,存在诸多体制性难题,比如户籍困局,再比如社会保障不完善。

“Little brother wants to sleep” is a miniature, a metaphor and an interrogation. It represents the harsh reality of the rural villages which have been suffering from degeneration caused by the household registration system and the lack of social security.

Media commentator Yanlong elaborates [zh] on the need for social welfare reform:

农村留守的“弟弟”,显然不只有“睡觉”的权利。但是,社会保障的触角,并没有伸向社会的每个角落,于是属于儿童的福利,很多就成了纸上的描述。尤其在贫困的农村,所谓儿童的福利,直接与家庭个体的经济状况相挂钩。这种情形下,即使农村不出现空心化,疲于奔命的父母也未必能够有足够的时间照顾孩子,姐姐带弟弟上学的悲酸一幕依然不可避免。

之于女童的爷爷奶奶,同样有诸多缺失的权利可以观照。比如老有所养的权利。与城市职工不同的是,农村老年人没有“退休年龄”,归根结底,是薄弱甚至于空白的社会保障,让这个群体没有能力放下耕作而颐养天年。一定程度上,“幼无所依,老无所养”的农村,才是《弟弟要睡了》这张照片所传递出的最催人泪腺的问题。

The issue as stake is of course not about the right to sleep. Our welfare system has not reached the grassroots of society. Children's welfare has become mere talk, in particular in poor villages. The benefits that children enjoy depend totally on family income. Even though degeneration has not taken place in the villages, parents still don't have time to take care of their children; similar sad stories [to the photo] are unavoidable.

The grandparents of the little girl are also deprived of their rights to enjoy their retired lives. Different from their urban counterparts, the elderly in the villages do not have a retirement age because of the lack of social welfare protection. They have to keep on cultivating their land at a very old age. “The children have no one to depend upon while the elderly have no one to be fed by” – that is the sad message delivered by the photo.

58 million ‘left behind children’

To follow up on the story, QQ news sent a video team to the village and produced a very touching documentary report [zh] (with English subtitles).

The video documentary has attracted more than 5,200 comments. Below is a selected translation of the popular ones:

黑暗幽灵 社会总是在关注着留守儿童,把责任归于父母,可社会看到了没,那些家庭处于什么样的收入水平,不出去能有钱养活整个家庭吗,能供得起孩子上学吗,社会一直在那呼吁呼吁,也就那么点能耐了,不干实事·····

Dark spirit: Society also shows concern about the left behind children and blames the parents. However, does society see the income level of these families? Can it support the family and their children's education without [their parents’ needing to] work in the cities? Society keeps urging for concern, but there hasn't been any constructive suggestions.

顽石 大批农民工为城市的建设,为经济的发展,为生活所迫。由于政策的滞后,由于管理的缺失,由于有些官员人行的泯灭,使得大批儿童不能跟随父母到工作的地方一起上学。我们那些政府官员们他们的子女肯定不会有这样的问题,他们该好好的反思了

Stubborn stone: A large number of rural migrant workers have contributed to the construction of the cities and economic development in order to make a living. However, as a result of mistakes in government policy and city management of official decisions, children cannot follow their parents and enjoy education in the cities. Our government officials will never face such kind of problem, they have to self-reflect.

芝麻湖 不要责怪进城打工的父母,他们只不过为了能很基本的活着,同时给孩子更好的未来。谁也不想背井离乡,谁也不想在外漂泊,没有好的农村政策和农业扶持措施,在这个放弃了发展农业的国度,小康基本生活需求则没法实现。高物价,高房价让很多人连气都喘不上,更别谈好好地在农村活着。当孩子在贫困中生活,首先就要怪责国家,然后就是省级和地方政府。不要强词夺理说需要帮助的人太多,高昂的税收不用来给有需要的人民,那要拿来做什么?不要忘了,中国是一个税收极其高的国家,孩子们的生活本来应该更好的,和爸爸妈妈在一起。

Sesame mud: Don't blame the parents, they are trying their best to make a living and support their children. They don't want to leave home and wander around. However, without good policies on rural areas and support of agriculture, it is impossible to sustain one's living in the villages. People cannot even breathe because of inflation and high property prices and living in the rural areas is increasingly difficult. The government has to be blamed for the fact that children are living in poverty. The provincial and local governments also have to take up the responsibility. Don't talk bullshit that there are too many people need help, the tax payers’ money should be used for helping the needy. Our tax is among the highest in the world, we should let the children have a better living standard and live with their parents.

Reporter Fu Jianfeng highlights [zh] a quote in the video made by the teacher about an episode in the classroom:

一位孩子很大声地说:“我讨厌春天。”老师问他为什么?她说:“因为春天爸妈就出去打工了。只有到了冬天,爸妈才会回来。”这是发生在“姐姐抱着弟弟上小学”故事的对话http://t.cn/SZsUU4。我是含着泪看完的,这是5800万留守儿童的命运。这个社会、这个时代、这个国家,欠了他们

A child yelled out: “I hate spring.” The teacher asked him why. He said: “In spring, my parents will go out to work. They will only be back in the winter.” This is a conversation that happened in the village of “Little brother wants to sleep”. I watched the video with tears in my eyes. This is the fate of 58 million left behind children. Society and the country owes them what they have missed.

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