From “old pain” to “new wounds”: the children of migrant workers face an uncertain future

Due to the devastating impact of the world financial crisis on migrant workers in export-driven sectors in China’s developed eastern seaboard, vast numbers of migrant workers' children are being sent back to the countryside to go to school, and many rural schools are unable to cope with the sudden influx of students, according to a recently-published investigative report by the Southern Daily (南方日报). Due to economic difficulties and the discriminatory household registration system (户籍制度), many migrant workers who work in the city are forced to leave their children behind in the countryside to be raised by their grandparents and to attend generally sub-standard schools. CLB has previously looked into the difficulties that these “left behind children” face in terms of accessing quality education, becoming victims to violent attacks and sexual assault, and in dealing with other psychological problems caused by being cut off from the warm love of their parents. For the education community, this new influx of students is compounding the already very difficult challenge of educating a problem-prone disadvantaged group. Now, for many teachers, the old “left behind children” are seen as an “old pain”, while the new returnees are seen as a fresh “new wound”.
The Southern Daily report, which takes an in depth look at the rural areas of Chongqing, discusses the sense of emotional distress and nervous anxiety that children who grew up in prosperous cities now face as they find themselves living in the unfamiliar poverty-stricken hometowns of their parents. In the cities, their parents had once been able to fork over expensive tuition fees to allow the children to attend non-government run schools in the cities were they worked, so as to allow their children to grow up with their parents at their side. But with the economic downturn, the parents can no longer afford such a luxury, and so they’ve sent their children back to live with elderly grandparents or with more distant relatives. For the kids, who have grown up used to their parents love on a daily basis, this is the biggest shock. One child, calls her mother everyday, saying, “Mom, I miss you!”. Another child, who grew up in Dongguan, missed the mild and sweat flavors of Guangdong cuisine, and wasn’t yet used to the numb and spicy (麻辣) flavors that dominate Chongqing food. Other kids missed their friends back in the cities, which contrasted with the separation and isolation of living alone with elderly grandparents. The situation wasn’t entirely bleak, however. One teacher commented that the returning students had seen the outside world, and thus were more open, with outgoing personalities and had agile minds when compared with children who had only grown up in the villages.     
Academically, the kids were not doing very well. Many had atrocious test scores, partly due to the fact that, even though China has a policy of compulsory education (义务教育), the country uses over 30 different publishing houses for textbooks. Therefore, students who may have left the eastern seaboard in, say, November of December of 2008, when the economic crisis began to really affect China, would now find themselves lost, using textbooks that may have significantly different subject matter than the ones they were using before. On top of that, many schools simply don’t have enough textbooks to meet the huge demand of students. Chengxi primary school, for example, saw a sudden jump of 100 new pupils, forcing some classrooms to have over 80 students per classroom.  
More worryingly, just like “left behind children”, the new returnees were targets for sexual predators. For example, in Youyang county from 2008 onwards, 15 crimes against “left behind children” had been committed (involving 33 people), with rape accounting for 12 cases involving 13 people, including two cases involving small children. Experts warn, however, that these reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Also, according to a investigative report carried out by district police in rural Chongqing, 34 percent of “left behind children” have to walk more than an hour to get to school, 15 percent have to walk more than two hours; 61 percent encounter bullying on the streets, and 33 percent repeatedly have encountered danger. The situation has left authorities worried. 
In sum, the financial crisis seems to have hit the most vulnerable people in society the hardest, and has further exposed the need for reform in some of China’s most problematic systems: the rural education system and the hukou system. 
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