The parent trap

Disaster as five children drown

The parent trap

On Sunday May 6, little Jianjian ran home to his grandparents, 71 year-old Li Xixiu and 72 year-old Wang Jiushou, with terrifying news.

His five older siblings and cousins, aged between six and 11, had disappeared under the waters of a pond, not far from their home in Tangxi village in Jiangxi province.

All five children drowned.

The tragedy – which occurred in a mountain village about 80 kilometres from Yichun city – highlighted a long-running problem: tens of millions of children are growing up without parents. Instead they’re left behind in villages to be raised by grandparents who often are unable to care for them properly.

Their parents are among the 200 million migrant workers who return home not much more than once a year. The lives of their children offer a troubling flip side to the “economic miracle” of the last few decades.

Government figures put the number of ‘Left Behind Children’ at around 55 million. A new census, out later this year, may show a fall in that figure, experts say, as more parents try to take their children to cities – enrolling them in ‘unofficial’ schools for migrants’ offspring. These insitutions are still regularly closed down by city governments, which generally want to discourage the flow of migrant families to big cities. Under China’s tough hukou, or residency laws, it’s very difficult for parents to settle a family in the richer seaboard where many find work (for more on the topic of the hukou, see WiC88).

Education is a major problem as non-hukou children don’t qualify for state schools – and even if they can find a school willing to take them, they cannot sit the gaokao (university entrance exam) except where they are officially registered.

The tragedy in Tangxi village showed the problem particularly clearly. After “Jianjian” (a pseudonym) ran for help, an attempt to trawl the pond failed. That’s because the village’s elderly residents weren’t strong enough to retrieve the bodies, the Shandong Commercial Daily reported. “This isn’t just a tragedy of Wang Jiushou’s family but of all society,” lamented the Xinhua news agency. In the case of the Wang family, the five children and the sole survivor were the offspring of two sons and two wives.

Their parents had assessed the economic benefit of leaving the children behind before deciding that all four had to travel to find work, the Shandong Commercial Daily said.

Wang Guangzhong and his wife worked on a construction site in neighbouring Yichun city, earning Rmb100 ($15.70) a day. His brother, Wang Guangjun, was in Shenzhen with his wife, where they earned Rmb30,000 a year.

Most Chinese have sympathy for parents who decide to go to the city, and Chinese culture has long regarded it as reasonable for children to be raised by their grandparents.

But this tragedy has also highlighted a sad element of modern China in which children see their parents perhaps just once a year.

Increasingly, some are asking if it’s all worth it. Writing on the Sohu bulletin board, Duoshi2011 recalled: “I once thought of going to work far away. My wife said, ‘You want to earn money far from home, but what’s the point if you damage your children? We don’t have money but if we raise our children well, they can earn money. That’s real richness. What’s the point in going away to earn money?’ This is only my personal opinion.”

Easily said but less easily done, when leaving home may triple the family income.

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