Millions of migrant workers left behind their children in their home villages, developing mostly unheard problems. Author Zhang Lijia, who earlier published Lotus: A Novel on prostitution in China, is now working on a book on this hidden drama, including epidemic suicide, and she started publishing their stories in the South China Morning Post.
Yuzhong is part of China’s lost generation known as the left-behind children.
Last year, according to government statistics, there were 9.02 million minors who matched the profile of Yuzhong: rural children both of whose parents were working away from home or where one parent was working and the other did not have guardianship of them. A much wider definition, which counts all children with at least one parent as working away from home, would put the figure at 61 million.
Their plight was once again thrust into the national spotlight last week when a photo of Wang Fuman, 8, with frost covering his hair and eyebrows, went viral. Fuman had walked 4.5km (2.8 miles) in freezing temperatures – minus nine degrees Celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit) – to school, and his story raised more than US$300,000 for the poor in China.
But more often, stories about the left-behind children, who number close to Britain’s total population, don’t have such a happy ending. They have become a massive social problem that has produced a raft of tragedies that have shocked the entire nation.
In June last year, four left-behind children from the same family, ranging from ages five to 13, committed suicide together by swallowing pesticide in Bijie, in impoverished Guizhou province.
In November 2012, five boys died from carbon monoxide poisoning after starting a charcoal fire trying to stay warm inside a dumpster.
The problem of left-behind children is most severe in Anhui, Henan and Sichuan provinces, the key sources of migrant workers, where 44 per cent of rural children live without their mother or father. This is far higher than the national average of 35.6 per cent, the survey found.
The loss of solid family structure at a young age can lead to severe mental health issues, according to a report by the civil society group Shang Xue Lu Shang and Beijing Normal University.
“Companionship is an important element that contributes to a healthy psychological condition in a child, to which a family’s income or social class is not necessarily relevant,” the report said.
Are you looking for more stories by Zhang Lijia? Do check out this list.
A visibly angry Zhang Lijia commented on the forceful eviction of migrant workers in Beijing at CNN in December 2017