Column: Chinese policies leave millions of children behind


China’s economy experienced massive growth over the last century, at such a rate that the government has not appropriately adapted to the changes and is hindering the welfare of its people. (BXGD/Flickr)

China’s economy experienced massive growth over the last century, at such a rate that the government has not appropriately adapted to the changes and is hindering the welfare of its people. Government restrictions are separating parents from their children and forcing millions of children to abandonment in the countryside living with distant relatives. The children left behind make up almost the same amount of children living in the United States – about 70 million. 

The system that accounts for these problems is called “Hukou.” The Hukou registration system, or household registration, was established in 1958 to “control population mobility.” According to a University of Toronto economic study, it makes government services such as healthcare and education conditional based upon where you live and your occupation. The classifications are either agricultural (rural) or non-agricultural (urban), and in order to change status or move to a different area, there needs to be an approval from a citizen’s local government, which is extremely difficult to obtain.

Before 2003, migrant workers who did not hold a temporary residence permit would be arrested and deported by authorities. Reforms created in the 1980s have improved previous conditions such as the prohibition to work outside one’s Hukou location or class, however migration costs within China stay extremely high – especially for rural workers. 

Economic growth means more investment and productivity. But to increase productivity, firms need workers. Along with China’s extensive economic growth must come major government reforms towards the treatment of internal migrants and their families, or China’s economy will suffer in the long run.

When migration costs declined between 2000 and 2005, the stock of migrants considerably appreciated. For migrants within provinces, it was 20 percent and for migrants between provinces their stock increased 220 percent. Aggregate productivity and welfare also increased, proving that if further action is taken to ease migrants’ struggles China’s economy can flourish. 

Across China, social benefits are unnecessarily unequal, which creates the component of “left behind children”. If the Hukou system was wholly abolished, none of these problems would exist and China’s future population of the children growing up now would most definitely benefit. Shanghai researchers found that the population of left behind children underperform at school and have slower emotional and social developments than those of their peers. On top of this, according to an Amnesty International report from 2007, China’s efforts at keeping Hukou a mandated law apparently violates the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Chinese government efforts to improve the Hukou system have somewhat succeeded but are not impartial. The amount of rural Hukou holders who meet the financial and educational requirements set by the reforms remains very low, making it an immeasurable struggle for many of the Chinese migrant workers. For families that stay together, migrants with rural Hukou status who want to send their children to an urban school must pay a “donation,” and sometimes this fee can exceed the workers’ salary.

Female migrant workers face gender discrimination, are sexually harassed and in some cases fired for being pregnant. A study in 2003 from the All-China Women’s Federation discovered that 21 percent of female migrant workers were fired after becoming pregnant or giving birth.

The majority of internal migrants also lack health insurance and live in cramped housing, making them easily susceptible to fatal diseases. The amount of occupational hazards for migrant workers is incomparably higher to the wealthier sectors of the Chinese population, or to those that work in their assigned Hukou locations. 

Although some might find these problems irrelevant because it is happening across an ocean and in another dimension of the world, maybe raising awareness throughout our country could help in some way. It is arbitrary that a government-imposed regulation is separating mothers from their children, causing many rural migrant workers to be left with barely anything in their pockets and live in hazardous conditions.

Once China rids themselves of these archaic regulations, maybe the conditions for migrant workers can improve and benefit the population as well as the entire economy.

Aly McTague is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at

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