Who Are China's Left-behind Children?

In China, tens of millions of people have left their villages to find work in the cities, leaving their children behind. Documentary photographer Uri Aviram lived among these children and discovered that the reality is more complicated than he’d thought

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One of the Chinese families interviewed by Aviram.
One of the Chinese families interviewed by Aviram. Credit: Uri Aviram
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

When and how did you first come across the term “left-behind children”?

The first time I heard about this phenomenon was in a university course about villages in China. I was absolutely intrigued. I’ve always had a strong affinity for China. I traveled there after my army service, completed a degree in East Asia studies and also learned Chinese. After graduation, I received a scholarship and went to China to study the language. I was supposed to stay for a year, but I stayed for two. That’s also when my interest in documentary photography began, and then everything came together: I knew that this would be my subject, that I would do a project about the “left-behind children.”

It’s a poetic name for a widespread phenomenon in Chinese villages: The parents migrate to distant cities to find work and lodgings, the children stay behind, usually with other family members. They see their parents only once a year.

There are a lot of families like this in China. The exact numbers are unknown, of course, but there are said to be around 60 million families. The parents leave home to seek a better future for their family. They only return to the village for the Chinese New Year. It’s important to understand that they are not abandoning the children. It’s the parents’ choice, because they believe that this is the best way, possibly the only way, to ensure their children’s future – so that they will be able to pursue academic studies and find a good job. It’s not that the parents are living it up in the city and partying. Life there is very hard for them. They are making a true sacrifice.

No coveted jobs await them in the city. They’re hired for menial jobs, public works projects, and they work six or seven days a week.

In the city, they work in factories, restaurants, beauty salons and the like. Of course they don’t have contracts and they don’t get social benefits. Everything is very unstable. The work is hard, the hours are long, the pay is relatively meager. They usually live in neighborhoods where other labor migrants are concentrated, in poor conditions. But the rent is low, and they try to save money.

We in Israel should not forget that we’re responsible for the fact that there are many foreign migrants here who have been forced to part from their families. That too is an injustice. What’s unique about the Chinese case is that even though the migration is domestic, it resembles migration between countries. The distances are vast, there’s discrimination against villagers in the cities, they go home only once a year.

China has one of the world’s highest levels of inequality between rich and poor. Even though the villages are also enjoying some development and the living standard is rising across the country and among all strata of the population, those disparities are not being reduced. Migrants from the village to the city experience a completely different world. In countries that are completely underdeveloped, the city doesn’t have a significant advantage over the village in terms of the opportunities it offers; in developed countries there are also options available in the rural areas. In China, the rural areas offer hardly any opportunities to residents, other than farming, whereas the city has a dizzying abundance of opportunities for migrant workers. There are so many factories, stores, restaurants, beauty salons – there’s no way that someone looking for a job won’t find one.

The Chinese case differs also in that people are not necessarily free to migrate elsewhere in the country. In the past it was completely banned, and even today there are many restrictions.

China has a system of population registry that dates back to the late 1950s. It’s a kind of expanded ID card that links a person with their place of birth. For decades, that link was unchangeable: It was clear that if you were born in a village, you would spend your whole life there. The desire to migrate to the city always existed, but it couldn’t be done legally. That policy started to change in the 1980s, but even then, villagers who came to the city to find work were not eligible for medical care or educational services for their children. Labor migrants were even required to bring their own food, in order not to waste the city-dwellers’ supplies. Today there are fewer restrictions and less bureaucracy, but vestiges of the old system remain. Health insurance, for example, is still available only in one’s birthplace.

How did you go about your project of photographing and interviewing families of left-behind children? How did you win their trust?

Documentary photographer Uri AviramCredit: Hadas Parush

It’s a very sensitive issue, so I got to the families I photographed through connections. I know a lot of Chinese people from the time I lived and studied in China, and I simply asked them whether they knew a split family from this or that province. They put me in touch with people who fit the bill. Naturally, this being China, everywhere I went I had to report to the police station and declare where I would be and for how long – and the police also come to check. When I meet a family in the village, I explain to the children and their custodians what I am doing. Of course I also ask for the consent of the parents in the city to photograph and speak with their children, and later to come to the city to photograph and speak with them as well.

Where do you stay when you’re in a village – with the family?

With them or with another family. I sleep in their homes and eat meals with them. For payment, of course. In terms of conditions, I have no problem; the situation is usually reasonable and even when it’s less so, I get along. I try first of all to understand their daily schedule and the division of labor in the home. I ask them to continue with their lives as usual, not to cook especially for me and or wait for me if they’re doing some particular thing. It takes them a few days to feel comfortable – because I’m a guest and they feel that they are expected to act as hosts – and then I start talking to them.

What do you ask them?

It’s the parents’ choice, because they believe that this is the best way to ensure their children’s future – so that they will be able to pursue academic studies and find a good job… They are making a true sacrifice.

Very general questions at first. About the home, the family, life in the village. I try to understand what the children’s story is, what it’s like for them in school, what they like to do, and of course I ask the youngsters too about their parents and their relationships with them. I ask the parents why they left, about their contacts with the children, whether they are considering going back or bringing their family to the city. Overall the answers are similar, the stories are similar – but even so, each family has its own story.

Are there no unusual stories?

Here and there. For example, with the first family I photographed, the daughter, who was 12, remained by herself.

All alone?

Alone with a cousin of 10, a girl, and a cousin of 8, a boy. They have relatives in the village, but still, they live alone. The children have to cook and shop and do laundry for themselves, and the 10-year-old makes sure that the 8-year-old does his schoolwork.

It’s a sensitive subject and it’s a nondemocratic country. Were there any people who were critical of the phenomenon?

No way. I’m sure there are some who are against it; but talking is different from thinking, and in China for sure. Often it’s not actually due to fear: They know I’m not a policeman or a party official, they have simply become used to not talking about the phenomenon. In the city I heard occasional criticism of the system – that the government doesn’t do enough to prevent it.

A boy and his grandma. One of the families documented by Uri Aviram.Credit: Uri Aviram

Three decades have passed since the migration ban was lifted, and many of these parents are already the second generation of the phenomenon. As children, their parents left them, and now they are leaving their children.

For sure, there are a lot of problems with this system. Even if the children are looked after, in the end they are not with their parents. With one family I photographed, the children live with the uncle and his family. They are really very nice people and they look after the children well, but they’re not their parents. I went back to them three or four times, and the last time, after I’d spent two weeks with them, the mother arrived from the city. That same evening, she saw her son pick up an apple to eat and told him, “Hey, your hands are dirty. Wash your hands!” And suddenly I realized that until then I hadn’t heard anyone speak like that to the boy, someone who paid attention to something like that. Like mothers do.

I read the testimony of a woman who was a “left-behind” child in the 1990s. She said that her father would come home once a year, and that he was like a complete stranger. She felt awkward with him. Today she also works in the city, but she speaks to her children every day via WeChat and sends them gifts. Did the emotional price come up in your interviews?

Today, there are ways to keep up ties even with the remotest villages, but there’s still a feeling of being strangers when the parents arrive. There were a few families in which the parents were ready to talk about that frankly. I interviewed parents who get home once a year to see their son, who was a month old the first time they left. Today he’s 8. They told me with tears about the situation – how it takes a few days from the moment they arrive until their son is ready to stop treating them like strangers. It really is sad. It was hard for me to see the mother trying to get close to her son and being treated the same way I was, as a stranger living with them in the house. These parents have hopes for their children, and that’s something that was repeated in almost all the conversations: the aspiration for the child to finish school and find a good job. One father said explicitly: “Just so he doesn’t end up like me.” That’s one of the reasons these parents often see no alternative.

How do they perceive the phenomenon? How do they interpret it?

With some sadness, I can say that most of the people I spoke to have simply become accustomed to it. From their point of view, that’s how it is and nothing can be done about it. It’s been going on for 30 years and by now it seems natural: It’s obvious that you leave the kids with Grandpa and Grandma and find a job far from home. I met one man who left his baby daughter in the village with his parents, and when I spoke to him and used the term, in Chinese, the “left-behind children,” he had no idea what I meant. He didn’t know the term. It was only after our conversation that he grasped that it was a national phenomenon, not just something that happened with him and a few other people he knew.

Some families decide not to split up –the children move to the city with their parents. From what I read, that choice also has a price. The children are alone most of the day, they live in not-great neighborhoods and are in more danger.

In the first family I photographed, the daughter, 12, remained by herself, with a cousin of 10 and a cousin of 8. They have relatives in the village, but they live alone. The children have to cook and shop and do laundry.

As in every country, living in the city is far more expensive. So, for many migrant workers, bringing the children along is not really an option, because they don’t have the money that’s needed at the start. Those families who do have the means and somehow manage to relocate to the city have to cope with other problems. Until not long ago, it was quite hard to find educational frameworks for the children – whether because the demand exceeds the supply, or because schools demand extra payments from them; they simply exploit the migrants. In other words, the urban discrimination stems not only from the local residents but also from the system.

There’s also the matter of stability, which came up in quite a few interviews. I was with one family where the parents had been working outside for 15 years. They were able to build a fine house in the village, and had enough money to take the children along to the city. When I asked them why they don’t do that, they explained that they work long hours and aren’t home, and that every few months they change jobs and move. The father said that he doesn’t want to subject his daughter to instability like that or to have her switch schools every six months. He prefers to have her stay in the village, even if the price is not seeing her.

What did you hear from the children?

Children whose parents left when they were babies simply don’t know any other way of life – children like that, when they are very young, will actually be afraid of their parents when they come home, or they will ignore them – and that is very widespread. In contrast, children who were older express themselves more clearly. For example, I met a family where the mother decided to leave for the city after she was widowed and left on her own with three children. Her daughter, who was 12 when her mother left, told me: “Obviously I miss my mother and it’s hard for me that she’s far away, but I want her to make money and take care of my brothers.” I asked about her relationship with her mother. “She calls a lot and tries to take part in my life, but all she can do is listen to me by phone from a distance of 5,000 kilometers.“

One of the boys interviewed by Aviram. He lives with his older sister and a cousin.Credit: Uri Aviram

That’s painful.

Yes. In that case, the girl also dropped out of school. When I interviewed the mother in the city, she said her daughter’s decision was hard for her, that she would have preferred to have been home so she could push her daughter to stay in school, but couldn’t. That’s actually the other side of what the daughter said. Her younger son, however, only told me, “Mom went to work in the city because she needs to make money.” My feeling was that he was just reciting what his mother had told him to say.

The crucial question is whom the child lives with – if they’re with a strong family, their situation will be better. But other left-behind children are more vulnerable. There are high dropout rates, as well as drug use and exposure to abuse. Did you hear stories of that kind?

No. Even if these things do happen, it’s hard to get information about it. I know that the high dropout rates are always cited, or the vulnerability to drugs and abuse, and all that happens, of course, but we need to look at the big picture. Most village children don’t manage to complete high school. The dropout rate among these children is very high.

In 2015, four left-behind siblings who suffered from poverty, neglect and violence, committed suicide by drinking pesticide. That stirred a furor, and the government announced that it would take action to reduce the scale of the phenomenon. This would include having to reduce the obstacles facing families that migrate to the city together, and creating employment centers in the villages.

I take the matter of the shock with a grain of salt. Like everywhere, something happens that brings to the surface a phenomenon that everyone knows about, and people are shocked. In any event, with all the shock, the government didn’t change the laws or introduce a sweeping new policy. All they did was to order local governments to introduce all kinds of changes, such as accepting more migrant children in their schools. In my opinion, at least, encouraging migrants to return to the villages also has nothing to do with the left-behind children; the idea is to develop the villages and not get to the point where too many people are leaving.

In many senses, this phenomenon reflects the social price that China’s wish to make progress is exacting. It’s not the “Great Leap Forward” [the massive economic and social-reform program of 1958-1962], and I’m not making a comparison, but the price is high and is again being foisted on citizens.

The starvation that occurred in China at that time was due to hasty and sudden moves. Today the steps being taken are far more measured and there is constant supervision by the government which, not being democratic or respectful of privacy, knows exactly what is happening at every level, with all that entails. I think that we tend to look at it only in black-and-white terms: People think that the Chinese government is bad, and the citizens are suffering and being trampled underfoot, but the reality I encountered is slightly more complex.

It’s true that China is setting goals for itself and isn’t inclined to let anything stand in its way; but today, in contrast to the bitter experience of the 1950s and 1960s, the citizens themselves are enjoying the fruits of economic development. That progress is contributing to development of the villages. It’s hard to find a village in China that isn’t now, or hasn’t been, undergoing some sort of process of development – paving of roads, building of bridges and so on. I don’t purport to know the political motivations behind every such move, but I think it’s easier now for a rural family to get to a market or to the school or hospital. The motivations are also less relevant. There’s plenty of politics going on above everyone’s head, but at the grass-roots level, most people seem to be content.

Let’s not pretend: The whole world is enjoying China’s accelerated economic development.

That too needs to be said. We look at labor migrants in China and hear about someone who works 12 hours a day, seven days a week and doesn’t see their children, and we find that shocking. But we too benefit from it. That’s what “Made in China” means. It should make us look at things in the right proportions: to understand that we too are part of this cycle.

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