Two Peas in the Same Pod – Comparison Study of Left-Behind Children and Migrant Children in China

By Jiajie Xu, Jiale Huang, Qilong Tan, Yuan Shi, Yiwei Xuan, Zichen Yuan

With urbanization accelerating at an alarming pace in recent decades, China has approximately 290,000,000 migrant workers migrating from rural to urban areas according to the 2019 Migrant Workers Monitoring Survey Report. If taken by their parents to urban areas, children of these migrant workers are referred to as migrant children. In contrast, those who are left behind in villages with relatives or grandparents are referred to as left-behind children. Covered by the flourishing development of cities, these children face significant hardship in education.

Owing to the massive gap of economic and educational resources between rural and urban areas, left-behind children face education troubles. And restrictions towards the Hukou system, a social management system based on household registration that regulates social services and the government’s administrative affairs in China, also restricted education access for migrant children. Education problems of these two groups of children are now provoking increasing public concern.

As a result, the problem regarding the difference between the two groups of children is of great research interest. Our research report focuses on migrant children in Shanghai and left-behind children in the rural areas of Anhui. We investigated the conditions of these particular groups of children based on first-hand information in Shanghai Jiuqian Volunteer Center and voluntary teaching experience in Anhui Buchen County.

Which is the larger pea?

The market survey in 20th July 2020, Shanghai, in which nine vendors were interviewed, suggests that left-behind children is “the larger pea”. Every vendor believes that if their children have good grades at school, they will try their best to offer their children an opportunity to study in Shanghai rather than going back to their hometown. Unfortunately, seven out of nine vendors’ children are unable to study in Shanghai due to the strict restrictions including expensive extra fees and points-based system policy (120 points are needed for their children to receive high-level education in Shanghai). The other two children study in Shanghai, but one goes to a vocational school, where he cannot learn much academic knowledge and get a high degree. Another child is fortunate because his parents earn enough money and credits for him to attend university in Shanghai. Those vendors all had high expectations for their children’s study and hoped that their children could take college entrance examination, in Shanghai and study in a Shanghai university. However, due to various restrictions, most of the vendors’ children still had to go to school in their hometown; as a result, they became left-behind children. From this survey, we can conclude that the number of left-behind children is larger than the number of migrant children.

Similar wages, different purchase

Although migrant workers can make a living in big cities, it’s difficult for them to lead an enjoyable life due to the high costs of living in the city. Take the apartment of a Jiuqian student as an example. Though the apartment is well stocked with appliances, and the child himself also has his smartphone, the 12-year-old child has to share two beds with three other family members. However, in terms of left-behind children in Anhui, they are left in a worse situation. Living in low blocks constructed by mud walls, with livestock wandering outside their classroom, left-behind children have limited access to the internet. They have limited choice for purchase even they have the money.

Fig. 1 Migrant children in Baolong Art Museum

Education, light to the future

Shanghai, as an international metropolis, contains numerous places with diverse courses and study experiences for children. Although the migrant children living here cannot take the Chinese high school entrance examination and college entrance examination due to a strict points system, they still have the right to enjoy the public resources in this city. As migrant children, they are unfortunate but lucky. Voluntary organizations such as Jiuqian Volunteer Center are established primarily for the welfare of migrant children. For instance, in Jiuqian, TOK, Philosophy, art, coding, etc. are all courses provided for migrant children. These diverse courses are invented because of the founder’s experience and knowledge, as well as the international environment in Shanghai. We interviewed a volunteer teacher in Jiuqian who used to be a student in Jiuqian. According to her experience, she was able to discover her interest in dancing and art, thanks to the diverse curriculum provided in Jiuqian. Otherwise, she won’t be able to find such a fulfilling and satisfying career as a teacher. We also had the honor of visit the Baolong Art Museum with migrant children studying there. When we walked through fantastic artworks, children’s love for them is beyond words. Specifically, a little girl told us that she did not understand the deep meaning behind these works. Still, she hoped to be a volunteer here so that she could gradually understand them by observing them over and over again. At that moment, it was the beauty and mystery of art that attracted her and aroused her personal goal.

Fig. 2 the interview with a volunteer in Jiuqian

Unfortunately, left-behind children in Anhui can’t have the chance to enjoy these diverse curricula and activities. To get more information about left-behind children’s situations, our group interviewed several voluntary teachers. From their experience, left-behind children mainly face two obstacles. Firstly, left-behind children are suffering from the “culture of poverty.” Those children’s custodians never consider education as something indispensable. Second, left-behind children are facing a lack of educational resources. Form one of the voluntary teacher’s interview, he mentioned that “teacher” is a valuable resource in rural areas. Based on our group member’s voluntary teaching experience in Buchen county, Anhui, there was only one English teacher for left-behind children. The teacher was 92 years old and retired from a nearby primary school decades ago. When we asked left-behind children in Anhui about their dreams and personal goals, most of them felt confused about the future.

Apparently, migrant children in cities are better supervised by parents and teachers; also, diverse courses and activities are opened through schools or voluntary organizations to enable children a better chance to explore their interests and get ready for future careers.

Deep buried difference

When we first met the migrant children in Jiuqian, what impressed us most was the children’s lovely personality. Most of them are confident and outgoing, willing to share fun stories about themselves and amusing anecdotes with us. Some of the migrant children even asked us about private gossip news. Although they move from place to place and the process of growing up is full of challenges for them, their parents are always around them.

Fig. 3 migrant children in Anhui

Conversely, our group member’s voluntary teaching experience indicates lower self-esteem among left-behind children. When a little girl was called to dictate English words, she failed to write the word correctly and began crying when she was asked to sing an English song as a small punishment. Left-behind children are generally more sensitive towards critics. All of the characteristics above can be attributed to a lack of parental care and accompanying, which may be the primary reason for the difference in personality and mental state between left-behind children and migrant children.

To stay or to leave? That is a question.

What bothers the migrant workers are their children. Through our interview, almost all the migrant workers hoped that their children could receive a high level of education. The two choices, leaving their children in their hometowns and taking them to Shanghai; however, each has their flaws.

When left behind in the countryside, the most considerable advantage is that these children can maintain their school rolls, entering middle schools and high schools without difficulty. Also, remaining in the place where their household registers are, these children’s local citizen benefits and rights aren’t limited. What’s more, leaving children in hometowns also enables those children to stay in environments which they are familiar with, which means they don’t have to endure the insecurity of moving to new places and overcoming difficulties of getting used to a new environment.

However, the lack of parental companionship leads to severe, or even irreversible, mental shortcomings to left-behind children, including timid personalities and low self-esteem. Besides, under the instance that the geographical economy growth is exceptionally unbalanced, the education resource and the teaching quality in rural areas are poorly guaranteed.

On the other hand, although the future path is filled with uncertainty for migrant children as well, studying in big cities enables them valuable chances to receive diverse forms of education, which will be an eye-opening experience to these children. Furthermore, parental care’s presence benefits the study and personal growth of migrant children to a large extent. Nonetheless, once migrant children enter large cities, some civil rights are impaired because of the household registration system, which is unique in China.

Though both choices are not easy to walk through, it seems that if migrant workers can bring their children with them, they will be able to have more diverse education and healthier mental development than their peers left behind in the hometown. Unfortunately, as manifested by our field research in Shanghai marker, left-behind children still make the “bigger pea” in the pod. The truth cannot be ignored is that if migrant children want to finish all their education in big cities, they have to undergo severe policy restrictions. To radically solve the problem, the relevant departments such as the Bureau of Education and the government should improve the policy system.

Besides, all kinds of volunteer organizations are essential and indispensable. In Shanghai, organizations like Sunflower Community Children’s Service Center and Jiuqian Volunteer center are doing great jobs to bring better welfare to migrant children in the city by offering them educational opportunities and diverse activities to find a sense of belonging. And in Anhui, self-organized voluntary teaching groups are helping with the dilemmas confronted by left-behind children to a large extent.

Rural-urban migrant workers contribute to our cities’ economic development significantly. When we enjoy the benefits of city facilities constructed by migrant labors, their children face difficulties attending city schools or being left behind. Whether migrant or left-behind, these children deserve the right to education as every one of us. As a beneficiary of the rapid urbanization, we should do our best to mitigate the “alienation” regarding the inequality buried deep inside our magnificent city lives.



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