Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Rural Chinese children left behind by migrating parents

This story on NPR today highlights the consequences of China's hukou system, which denies benefits to Chinese who migrate from one place to another.  That is, only by staying in their home area are the Chinese permitted to access government benefits.  Children often bear the most devastating consequences of the policy because it creates incentives for parents who migrate from rural to urban areas for work to leave behind their children, where the children will have a right to education and other benefits.  This can have devastating consequences for the parent-child relationship.  This excerpt from the story by Sushma Subramanian and Deborah Jian Lee explains the hukou system and the dilemma it creates for rural Chinese families:  
Rural children lose their rights to subsidized education, health care, and other basic services the moment they step into the city. 
The hukou system, designed to control migration and fuel economic success, provides a steady trickle of cheap labor to cities rather than a surge, which Chinese officials fear could lead to unrest and urban discontent. Enacted in the 1950s, the system made it difficult for peasants to move to the cities and granted urban citizens a wealth of social benefits that their rural counterparts weren't eligible to receive. Two decades later, as industrial hubs discovered their growing need for low-cost laborers, officials opened the floodgates. But there was a catch: Officials denied rural migrants the social benefits that longstanding residents enjoyed in these cities.  
If parents move their children to the city to live with them, they must pay school fees in the range of $160 to $320/semester.  Fees at rural schools--which are admittedly inferior--cost $63 to $95 a semester.  Yet life in the villages is spartan if parents do not move to the city to earn income, which they then send home to support their children and parents.  Kam Wing Chan, a University of Washington geographer, has studied the hukou and observes:
[T]echnology and migrant life have improved village conditions, but have also forged a sort of "keeping up with the Wu's' mentality."  When parents decide to stay in the village, they deny their family the financial security and comforts that other villagers enjoy.  
The last paragraph of the story takes a tone somewhat different to what precedes it.  Like the rest of the feature, it uses the story of Huang Dongyan to illustrate the dilemma facing rural families.  In the end, Huang and her husband decide to bring their young child, Yi,  to the city to live with them, regretful that having left their daughter, Juanzi, to be raised by her grandmother, they lost a precious bond with her.  Huang returns to her home village of Silong to collect Yi.  Juanzi, now grown and working as a kindergarten assistant in a town near her parents in Shenzhen.  Subramanian and Lee paint this poignant picture of the journey, which reflects--if not an attachment to place--the familiarity of home:
After a grueling, day-long, 500-mile drive from Shenzhen, the van drops [Huang and Juanzi] off at 4 a.m. near their farmhouse.  The tiny mountain village is silent.  Juanzi runs ahead, disappearing into a hilly forest, calling her brother's name.  Through the darkness, Huang lets her feet guide her up the familiar curves on the road back home. 

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