China was recently rocked by the suicides of four siblings, aged five to 13, in Cizhu Village, Bijie city, Guizhou province. The “left-behind” siblings lived alone in a run-down house, and aside from occasional wire transfers of money from their father and a minimum living allowance from the local government, the children were left without care.

State media said the mother, Ren Xifen, left in 2014 following a “long and bitter dispute” with the father, Zhang Fangqi, who abandoned the children for work in March 2015.

Their deaths sparked public outrage across China over the government’s failure to address the problems of rural poverty and inadequate provision of social services. The incident highlighted not only the plight of China’s “left-behind” children, but also the obstacles the government faces in addressing migrant workers’ issues – and the risks of failing to do so.

According to government data released in May, there are 61m left-behind children in China, or about 37.7% of the children in rural China and 21.9% of children in the country. While their parents have migrated to cities to find work, they are usually left under the care of their grandparents or other relatives but an estimated 3.4% live alone.

The situation arises from perhaps the most glaring social contradiction in modern China: migrant workers are the fabric of the country’s rapid economic growth, yet national hukou (household registration) laws designed to manage migration mean they have unequal access to social services, including education, which are much better in urban areas than rural ones.

No choice

Migration to cities is one of the only ways China’s rural families can hope to make a living, since farming can no longer provide most of them with sustainable resources and incomes. That means migrant workers have little economic choice but to leave both their homes and their children far behind.

The social impact is enormous. A recent NGO survey of more than 2,000 left-behind children found that many suffer from depression and anxiety, particularly the 15% who are left without parents for a year or more. And without adequate guardianship, many fail to attend school and fall into crime, while a great many become human trafficking victims.

Following the siblings’ suicides Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, ordered officials to improve social security efforts. There are many dedicated NGOs and government welfare programmes targeting the problem, but it’s simply not enough. Social welfare still does not reach the most vulnerable of China’s rural poor population.

Beyond addressing inadequate provision of social services, the government knows it must change hukou laws to allow children to migrate with their parents and enjoy equal access to public services. But it also knows that doing so could trigger open class conflict, since urban residents worry that giving migrants full rights will overload their own social services.

In 2014, the government announced it would remove the urban-rural hukou distinction. A welcome development no doubt – but the reform is all but unenforceable – and it appears more rhetorical than substantial.

Young guns

The stability issues migrants pose are not in themselves a political crisis, because despite ongoing hardships, rural lives have generally improved in the post-Deng reform era. But many are still extremely deprived; while poverty levels have declined, the government reports that as of 2013, 82m people, about 15% of the population, live below the World Bank-defined poverty line of US$1.25 per day.

Meanwhile, new problems are emerging. As China’s economic growth slows, many factories have been forced to close or relocate, putting migrants under even more pressure. The migrant population is ageing, pushing the country’s broken pension system to the edge. In my own regular monitoring of social unrest in China, I have seen that the majority of China’s labour disputes are no longer over pay increase demands, but rather over unpaid wages and pension benefits.

The anger over unpaid wages signals a major generational shift. Where older workers were once accepting of wages being delayed, for example until a construction project was complete, younger workers are demanding timely payment regardless of the circumstances. Meanwhile, older generations are protesting over social insurance because they now face a retirement with little or no pension, despite years of hardship and sacrifice.


All this highlights the difficult choices facing a party-state whose primary objective is to maintain power, with economic growth being its crucial source of legitimacy.

As long as the root causes of migrant workers’ issues go unaddressed, it could be simply a matter of time before migrant workers stop putting up with the status quo. Sooner or later, the government will be forced to manage their demands. These are very much long-term questions, but as reaction to the siblings’ suicides indicated, this quiet crisis situation has the potential to be a game-changer.

Despite the government’s increasingly sophisticated censorship efforts, netizens have proved quick to criticise the government’s response to a crisis.

In the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which killed nearly 70,000 people, left-behind children were among the biggest victims. Many perished in sub-standard school buildings, while a great many others were left to face the disaster alone. If a disaster of a similar or greater scale were to strike again, the government’s failure to address the plight of impoverished citizens will be made appallingly clear.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.