china chinese children

Chinese left-behind children: a call for action

by Eleonora Perobelli.

As of 2010 (last data available), 61 million children under 17 are left in rural territories by parents seeking better jobs in urban areas of China. Causes of the phenomenon can be mostly related to the Hukou system (household registration) and to the lack of adequate welfare provisions for rural areas of the country. Liushou ertong (Chinese for left-behind children) represent one of the huge costs of the rapid industrialization that China has been experiencing in the last decades.

Over the past 30 years, 270 million Chinese farmers, most of whom young parents, migrated to cities to work. They encountered major obstacles on their way, the first being the Hukou system, introduced by the Government in 1953 to tightly control domestic migration. The Hukou is a household registration record containing information about each citizen’s place and date of birth, name, parents and marital status, and it entitles its owner of all welfare rights in his/her hometown concerning pensions, healthcare, social insurance, education and housing. The current rules make it very difficult for people labeled as rural residents to switch over to urban registration (in Shanghai, the eligibility requirements are so strict that less than 0.1 per cent of migrants would be qualified to apply). This means that domestic migrants cannot access welfare services in cities and hence have to pay the performances they need. The record has long functioned as a deterrent to migration, ensuring a limited rural-to-urban flow compared to the size of China’s economic development, yet it is the biggest voluntary migration ever.

If rural parents moved with their children, they would have to pay access to welfare for all, as kids would not be able to enroll in public schools and access healthcare. In addition, people work 12 hours or more per day and often live in dormitories where children are not allowed, and as their kids have no right of accessing kindergarten, parents would have to pay someone to take care of them. Grandparents could move as well, but once registered in the city, they would receive a far lower pension than their urban dwellers, making life unsustainably costly. Life in the cities is way more expensive than that in the countryside, and with no welfare coverage, it is impossible for working parents to support the entire family.

As a result, children are left behind in the countryside to the care of old and often illiterate grandparents, who are mostly still employed in farms, thus lacking the time to give them proper attentions. Several NGOs, media reporters and governmental agencies, namely All-China’s Women Federation, have conducted research about the kids’ conditions, and the results are alarming: many children live alone in boarding schools far from their village, as the government favors bigger institutions catalyzing people from vast territories. Being lonely exposes them to sexual and physical abuse also in these dorms, especially as they have no-one speaking up for them. Those living in the villages often spend their days talking to animals, their only company. These children have to fend for themselves and take care of siblings, and when the burden becomes too heavy some choose death over life.

10 million children do not see their parents even once a year, 3 million do not receive regular phone calls. Children suffer serious psychological disturbs and research showed that they are more prone to depression and anxiety than their urban peers. Furthermore, liushou ertong are more likely to commit crimes and be sent to jail without being granted probation, as they have no guardian.

The disastrous consequences of China’s one child policy together with the enormously distorted sex ratio and left behind children represent three factors undermining the traditional Chinese family. The time has come for the Western world to put ethics and values in front of profit, and advocate for comprehensive reforms that would finally ensure these kids their basic rights.

Eleonora Perobelli is a Bocconi graduate student currently attending the Bocconi MSc in Economics and Management of Government and International Organizations and her main area of academic interest is development economics.


The Economist (October 17th 2015), China’s left-behind – Little match children. The Economist, N° 8960 p. 29-32.

Save the Children (2012), China Program Annual review.

Golley (July 31st, 2014), An end to China’s Apartheid?, Consulted on December 24th. Available at:

Braningan, China reforms hukou system to improve migrant workers’ rights, The Consulted on December 24th. Available at: