China’s iPad Generation

At Foreign Policy, Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian describe the effects of China’s mass labour migration on the families it pulls apart. Absent parents leave tens of millions of rural children vulnerable to depression, suicide and kidnapping, but the discriminatory hukou registration system makes it difficult for families to move to the cities together.

On a sweltering night in July 2011, 17-year-old Zhang Juanzi arrives at her farmhouse in the remote village of Silong in Hunan province. Despite the cramped 12-hour van journey from Shenzhen, the young girl bounds past the wooden doors to wake up her 5-year-old brother, Zhang Yi, whose face scrunches in the flickering light. He is thrilled by her arrival, but when he sees his mother, Huang Dongyan, he recoils into his sister’s arms. He will not look at Huang, who is squealing at him, begging him to say “Mommy ….”

Huang and her son have a strained relationship, one damaged by Huang’s absence. It has been months since they last saw each other. Her son seems to view Huang as a stranger who visits once or twice a year and demands his affection. Huang blames the country’s housing registration policy, or hukou system, for their broken bond. The hukou system denies social benefits to China’s some 150 million rural migrant laborers who move to urban areas for work. Because of this policy, migrant workers like Huang are forced to leave their children behind in the village to receive schooling, health care, and other necessary services.

Roughly 58 million children like Yi are left in China’s countryside without their parents. This might be economically necessary, but it is emotionally disastrous: Chinese University of Hong Kong researchers found that adolescents left behind in their villages were more likely to engage in risky behavior such as binge drinking, and have increased thoughts of suicide. The children separated from their migrant parents are also more likely to have learning disabilities and psychological problems, says Zhang Ping, a researcher at the Psychological Science Institute of Guangdong Province. In school, they lack focus; at home they lack guidance.

Xinhua photographer Liu Jie poignantly captured the problem of divided families last year in a set of group portraits in which absent family members were represented by empty chairs. See past posts on CDT for more on labour migration and the hukou system.

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