Earlier in June, four children committed suicide in their own home in Bijie, Guizhou. The tragic incident has once again brought public attention to the problems facing China’s “left-behind children”. Following China’s rapid economic growth, a vast amount of its rural population has migrated to urban areas for employment. Some children have followed their parents while others stayed behind. Those who stayed are called “left-behind children” (留守儿童). Many social problems have accompanied this migration and the Bijie incident was certainly not the first tragic incident to occur. Why has there not been proper solutions? What is causing the problems? Can Chinese NGOs help? To discuss this important issue, CDB staff attended a roundtable discussion held by Yuan En Space (园恩空间) ((Yuan En Space is a Beijing-based social enterprise that provides a platform for people to discuss issues related to China’s charity sector. Their website is www.yuanenspace.com)) on June 15th.
Many academics, media professionals, and experts from NGOs that have been involved in solving problems facing left-behind children, were present at the discussion. The event was divided into 6 sections: introduction, overview of the Bijie incident, causes, possible solutions and case studies, discussion on future plans, and conclusion.
First off, Sun Xuemei, a reporter from the Jing Hua Daily, briefly introduced the whole incident to participants from a media point of view. She explained that at the beginning of the investigation, many reporters described the main cause of the suicide as poverty. However, Sun said, as more investigations were carried out, journalists discovered that poverty wasn’t the main issue. The children lived in a decent apartment with plenty of food stored in the room. Sun didn’t think that poverty killed these children. Instead a lack of care and love from both parents and society probably led to their deaths. Many who were present at the discussion seemed to agree with Sun’s opinion.
Ye Jingzhong, an expert on left-behind children and professor from China Agricultural University, also shared his analysis on the causes of the left-behind children issue from a sociological point of view. According to Ye, ever since the economic reform era, China has been focusing on urbanization and modernization. The government has been putting great effort on urban development. Under these circumstances, it might seem that people from rural areas have more opportunities and the choice to leave their homes and move to urban areas to seek better economic opportunities. However in reality traditional rural society is being forceably changed by China’s modernization. The rural population can no longer rely on their old ways of livelihood and are forced to move to larger cities. Ye emphasised that this was not a choice, and said that it eventually led to many families to be split apart. This had significant impact on a child’s upbringing, especially their education and mental health.
Tong Lihua, director of the Beijing Youth Legal Aid and Research Center, also shared his thoughts on possible of causes of the incident from a more legislative point of view. Tong stated that China actually already has enough laws and legislation to protect children from being left behind by their parents, but that local government isn’t implementing them effectively enough.
These background talks provided the discussion with a basic understanding of the causes of the Bijie incident and the issue of China’s left-behind children. NGO practitioners that had been working on related issues then presented their case studies and shared their thoughts on these ongoing projects. One was a member of staff from the NGO Growing Home (歌路营), who talked about their “New 1001 Nights: Bedtime Stories for Rural Boarding School Students” program. The program aims to improve students’ psychical and mental health, sense of belonging, relationships with other students, reading ability, and general knowledge, by telling stories to boarding students before they go to bed.
Similar to Growing Home, Yu Qiwen, the founder of Parents Heart Foundation (父母心基金会), shared his thoughts on his project “Candle Light”. Candle Light aims to not only solve left-behind children’s schooling problems, but also education problems that all rural children are facing. Yu explained that “Candle Light” hires recently graduated students from local universities to work at local village schools. Using this method the project has successfully hired many highly-motivated teachers to teach all kinds of classes in local schools. This provides a foundation for future changes that could improve education systems in rural areas. Candle Light will work with ten more rural elementary schools by September this year and also aims to publish a handbook that will enable other interested NGOs to join the project.
In the discussion part of the roundtable, participants expressed hope that projects like Growing Home’s “New 1001 Nights” and Parents Heart Foundation’s “Candle Light”, can contribute to solving the many problems facing left-behind children. However it was also pointed out that the projects required considerable resources and were not easily replicable for other NGOs. Many participants suggested adjustments to existing legislation that protects children and others thought that local governments should encourage more people to work in rural areas to develop the local economy.
Overall it was concluded that there were many things that could be done by NGOs to help solve China’s left-behind children issues. However there was not one unified solution that they could provide. Instead NGOs should be encouraged to discover their own way to become involved in solving the problems. Through this way, with NGOs working from all angles, and alongside a strong government response, participants concluded that the problem would eventually be solved.
The issue of China’s millions of left-behind children is one that is attracting significant attention from all corners of Chinese society. Yuan En Space’s roundtable event represented one small part of a huge nationwide discussion. There will be more discussion events in the future: Beijing’s Minzu University will soon host a seminar involving scholars and experts. Discussion and dialogue is an important first step to giving millions of children a brighter future.