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Left-behind children in China

The left-behind children in China (simplified Chinese: 留守儿童; traditional Chinese: 留守兒童; pinyin: liúshǒu'értóng) refer to children who remain in rural regions of China while their parents leave to work in urban areas. In many cases, these children are taken care of by relatives, usually by grandparents or family friends, who remain in the rural regions. These children are often categorized as left-behind given that the rural regions they reside in often lack social and economic infrastructures that are more readily available and accessible in urban areas.[1][2]

Many of these children face developmental and emotional challenges as a result of the limited interaction with their biological parents.[3] As of 2017, there are approximately 69 million children left behind in their rural hometowns. The lack of infrastructure and parental support have led to a host of additional challenges for left-behind children like quality education, physical well-being, and healthy social relationships.[4][5]

Owing to the country's hukou (household registration) system, Chinese left-behind children are confronted with issues regarding public school enrollment. As problems concerning education have multiplied, some cities have implemented a school enrollment point system, which hampers chances of migrant and left-behind children to acquire the learning they need. Combined with China's “point system for household registration,” a host of complications for migrant parents and left-behind children have been created.[6]


Most migrants leave their rural homes to seek work in urban areas and in industries that require lower levels of education such as manufacturing, construction, mining, and the service industry. These migrants often leave their children behind due to the economic and social restraints involved in migrating with children. One constraint is the high standard of living in most cities, making it difficult for parents to support themselves and their children. Likewise, the Hukou system prevents rural children from receiving social benefits in urban regions like education and healthcare. The left-behind children of migrant parents are often under the guardianship of grandparents and extended kin members.[7]

Drivers of rural-to-urban migration

The conversion of agricultural land for commercial use, along with the continuous and comprehensive development of the Reform and Open Door Policy in China that encourages rural peasants to migrate, increased the unemployment rate among rural workers. This prompted a growing number of rural peasants to leave their hometowns and search for better-paying jobs in urban areas.[8]

With the increasing unemployment rate and labor demands in cities, rural-to-urban migration was exacerbated as the Hukou system slackened. The Hukou system was enacted in the 1950s intending to control the mass movement of rural-urban migrants in China. The Hukou system is a household registration system which determines what social benefits (education, housing and medical services) they could receive of which when residing outside of the original place of origin, such benefits and services will not be awarded. The Hukou system prevented many families from moving to urban areas. The reforms implemented in the 1980s eased the registration system to promote development in China.[9][10][11]


Mental and Physical Health

Approximately 50% of the "left-behind" children in China go through melancholy and apprehension, in comparison to 30% of their urban peers. Likewise, they are more likely to suffer from mood swings and trauma. They typically have inferiority complexes, lower sense of worth and lesser self-confidence. Most of them lack a sense of security and are too afraid or anxious to interact with other people.[12][13]

Physical well-being is also significantly lower among left-behind children as they were more likely to have an unhealthy diet, lower levels of physical activity, and more likely to engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol. These particular habits have contributed to higher rates of stunted growth and unhealthy body weights.[14]


Due to parents’ migration to urban areas, countless left-behind children become reluctant and unenthusiastic to go to school. Many become truants and some of them drop out from school. As a consequence, these children lag behind from their counterparts academically. The children's lackluster attitude towards school restricts their social mobility that creates a barrier preventing them from getting out of the cycle of poverty.[15] Generally, these children have lower educational goals and are less likely to complete compulsory education.[16] They likewise show consistent low scores on primary school exams which potentially deter chances of a better future.[17]

These children also have difficulties with student-teacher relationships which pose a challenge to their education. Additionally, when parents migrate, these children's participation in housework and farming increases, leading to lesser time spent for academic pursuits.[18]


To encourage educational parity and provide equal opportunities at the same time assure migrant children's right to acquire essential education, a unified national student registration system has been set up in primary and secondary schools, and procedure for school transfers can now be conducted online.[19]

Social Relationships

The separation between parents and left-behind children poses a challenge to their social relationships. Left-behind children are more introverted than those who grow up with their parents and are more susceptible to being bullied at school.[20] This introversion is a result of perceived abandonment and anguish these children face when their parents migrate.


Left-behind children suffer major injuries more than those who stay with their parents.[21] In 2012, 5 left-behind children died from carbon dioxide inhalation after lighting a fire in rubbish bin for warmth.[22][23] In 2014, 12 girls were threatened and raped by their school teachers[24] and in 2015, 4 left-behind children living under domestic violence attempted suicide by drinking pesticide.[25][26]

The crime rate of left behind children is 70% higher than that of other juveniles.[27]

Cell phone addiction

Left-behind children spent longer time on mobile games, 19% of these spend over six hours on games, two times more than those who are with their parents. The parents fail to recognize their child's extreme phone use as an issue. To them, phones serve as “babysitters” to calm the children down and stay away from trouble.[28]

Influencing Factors

The severity of the negative consequences experienced by left-behind children in China depend on the child's age, gender, and family's economic resources:[29]


It was reported that children left behind at the age of 3 were associated with symptoms related to emotional issues while children left at the age of 9 were linked to a decrease in pro-social behaviors. Additionally, children who were left in early stages in life showed lower levels of life satisfaction. These reports suggest that the younger a child is, the more likely that he/she suffers psychologically than children left at an older age.


The social roles and expectations linked to gender issues have a significant impact on the left-behind child's experience. For example, it is common for caregivers of left-behind children to place more restrictions on girls' social activities than those of boys. The practice is an attempt to protect female children given that females are considered more vulnerable than males in many rural Chinese societies. Additionally, the level of housework required by left-behind female children increases when their parents migrate, replacing male children as the main caretaker of the household.


Low economic conditions often result to lower quality care of left-behind children. When caregivers lack the financial resources to afford school fees, nutritious food, and other basic needs, left-behind children are likely to face challenges with well-being. Lower-income households are also more likely to require left-behind children to engage in farm work resulting to their exclusion from social and academic activities.

Government and private-sector initiatives

A “Guidance on how to make best use of social work professionals in the protection of rural left-behind children” has been jointly issued by the Ministries of Civil Affairs, Education and Finance, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League and the All-China Women's Federation. The guidance carries out a series of policies and measures to support and guide social work professionals who work for the protection of rural left-behind children.[30] The tasks defined in the document include 1) assisting in the rescue and protection work; 2) carrying out family education guidance; 3) actively providing social care services. It aims to 1) strengthen the training and development of professionals; 2) actively cultivate and develop social work service institutions; 3) promote the construction of social work service stations in villages and towns; and 4) increase the employment of social work professionals in relevant units.

Another initiative from the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) was the placing of previously unsupervised left-behind children in the custody of guardians. Since the campaign commenced in November 2016, 16,000 left-behind children who had dropped out of school have resumed their education, and 177,800 who were previously unregistered have been registered on national household records. Likewise, a national information management system on left-behind children was launched. The system shares data with information systems of subsistence allowance, impoverished households and people with disabilities. It now has data on 1.3 million children with disabilities and 110,000 children of impoverished families.[31]

In Southwest China's Guizhou Province, left-behind rural children use smart wristbands with GPS for tracking and protection.[32] The local governments of Bijie city and Qianxinan Buyi, the Miao autonomous prefecture in Guizhou, spent approximately 24 million yuan (3.6 million U.S. dollars) to provide smart wristbands for more than 100,000 left-behind children in primary schools. The wristband has a GPS locator and is linked to local police databases which allows children to report emergencies.

In the private sector, a 100-square-meter children's center has been built with sponsorship from the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA) and Sichuan Provincial Communist Youth League. Filled with picture books, sports equipment, and tables, the center is often crowded with children on weekends.[33]

Further reading

The heartbreaking reason four Chinese siblings drank poison and died

One in three Chinese children faces an education apocalypse. An ambitious experiment hopes to save them

Chinese girl, 12, sells her hair for US$48 to buy phone to call her migrant worker mother

Alibaba's Jack Ma thinks he knows how to save China's 'left-behind children' — he's asking other entrepreneurs to buy in

Revisiting China’s village of left-behind children after suicides that shocked nation

The Chinese teacher who is ‘mother’ to more than 300 left-behind children

China to migrant workers: Take your kids with you

The Orphans of China’s Economic Miracle

One in 60 million: Life as a 'left-behind' child in China

Theory of Mind Development in School-Aged Left-Behind Children in Rural China

Left Behind Children in China

A Train Ride Away: Long-Distance Parenting in China

Improving the health and well-being of children of migrant workers

One-in-five children are ‘left-behind’ by China’s migrant parents

Debate on solutions for Chinese left-behind children

Stack, Megan K. (29 September 2010), "China raising a generation of left-behind children", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 20 July 2011

See also

Millions of Chinese Kids Are Parenting Themselves (Video)

Minister on care for left-behind children in China (Video)

UNICEF Annual Report 2017

Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China (Book)

Photo Series Documents The Life Of Some Of China’s ‘Left Behind’ Children


From 'left-behind' children to street children (English)

Sexual abuse casts shadow over left-behind children (English)

International comparisons

  • AIDS orphans, children raised primarily by grandparents, mostly in Africa
  • Euro-orphan, children left behind when parents move from one E.U. member state to another for work


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