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China's 'left-behind' children

Since he was born, 9-year-old Hu Songyan has been living with his paternal grandmother in Yangqi, rural village about an hour’s drive away from Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan.

BEIJING: Since he was born, 9-year-old Hu Songyan has been living with his paternal grandmother in Yangqi, rural village about an hour’s drive away from Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan.

His parents had divorced shortly after he was born, and moved to the cities for better paying jobs.

Now, he only sees them about once every month. Songyan said he misses his parents as he sees them only a few times every year, and he "feels very bad and sad when they leave him".

For now, his grandmother, Zhao Qianlian, says Songyan is doing fine at school. But she says taking care of him all by herself is exhausting.

She said, “I’m very worried that he’ll be led astray. He’s just too mischievous."

Songyan is just one of an estimated 61 million children who have been left behind in rural areas without at least one of their parents.

That is due to crippling poverty in many of China’s underdeveloped western and rural areas, and they are entrusted under the care of relatives, family friends and others who often do not have the financial means, physical ability or the knowledge needed to properly care for these children.

The house where 9-year-old Hu Songyan lives with his paternal grandmother in Yangqi, rural village. (Photo: Jeremy Koh)

Experts say this could lead to emotional and psychological stress on the children and affect generations to come.

Wang Le, Deputy Country Director of Save the Children, said: "From our experience and observations, children left behind without appropriate care, they’re more likely to be neglected or pose higher risk in terms of abuse and we also observed psycho-social development issues with a lot of left-behind children.

"And one thing can be even more worrying is what children experience during early childhood, it will also impact how they going to care and raise their children. So what we’re talking about here could impact generations and generations.”

This year, for the first time, the government announced that it would conduct a nationwide census to gain a proper account of the number of left behind children.

Ms Wang added, “There isn’t a single easy answer there to solve this issue, and I think if we go back to children, go back to the family, it’s how you can build up this support care and protecting network with the parents, with the community, with the state together for the children.”

At the core of the left-behind children phenomenon, however, is the Chinese residency permit system called the hukou.

This stops parents from taking their children to the cities they work as the system ties social benefits such as education and healthcare to a person’s hometown.

However, many city governments have gradually eased restrictions over the past few years.

Ines Kaempfer, Executive Director of the Center for Child-Rights & Corporate Social Responsibility (Beijing & Hong Kong), said: “We can see in certain areas that it already now makes a difference just in the first year that those interim regulations are being implemented, so we do think that these numbers will come down, but we have to see that the numbers are huge. So even if they come down by 20 million, we still have 40 million of left-behind children, so I do think this is an issue that will stay with China for a while, and just needs special attention.”

NGOs are calling on businesses to play a bigger role in supporting migrant workers and their children - an issue that if not resolved could eventually hurt China’s long-term economic performance.