The Children of China’s Great Migration

Published 30 June 2021 / By Rachel Murphy

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China’s high GDP growth rate and rapid urbanisation have been fueled by the migration of workers from rural areas to the cities. By 2018, over 200 million rural migrants worked away from their home villages. Meanwhile, over 61 million rural children – equivalent to the population of Great Britain – had at least one parent who had migrated without them. In the early 2010s, 47 per cent of 'left behind children' came from households where both parents worked away, typically leaving them in the care of grandparents or other family members.

The impacts on left behind children

In the 2010s I devoted myself to exploring the impact of this great migration on childhood and family relationships in China. In 2010 and 2011, I interviewed 109 children aged between 9 and 17 in Anhui and Jiangxi in two major labour-exporting provinces in China’s interior. Most of these children had at least one parent who was or who had been a migrant worker since they started school. I also separately interviewed their caregivers – usually a grandparent or an at-home parent. Then in 2013, 2014 and 2015 I made return visits to conduct follow-up interviews with 25 of the younger children (who by now were teenagers) and their caregivers, investigating how their circumstances and views had evolved. I also spoke to rural teachers and visited migrant parents in the cities.

It is rare for migration, urbanisation and family change to be examined through the eyes of children, and for children’s voices to be brought into conversations about national strategies for capital accumulation in a wider context of global market integration. My research found that parental migration profoundly changed the children’s relationships with the adults in their families.

The children were socialised at home and in school to see their parents’ migration as generating an intergenerational debt for them to repay through diligence in their studies. Meanwhile, educational aspirations for children drove the family’s migration project even as the children were never consulted about their parents’ decision to migrate without them. Indeed, many children recalled feeling unable to speak as they watched their parents packing to leave. When children were in primary school, the parent-work-and-child-study bargain gave them purpose and a distraction to deal with the pain of missing their migrant parents. As they grew older, though, especially if their grades turned out to be mediocre, some teenagers could become disillusioned and feel resentful towards their migrant parents.

'Good student' certificates pastes on the wall of a rural house

'Good student' certificates pastes on the wall of a rural house

The role of gender

The influence of cultural attitudes to gender on children’s experiences of being left behind was also apparent. Parents felt obligated to support a son’s education and to help him with housing and marriage costs while they felt that their economic obligations to a daughter ended after she finished her education. Children discerned connections between their gender, what their migrant parents’ intended to provide for them, and the allocation of resources and chores to them when they were left behind. Nevertheless, wider social changes favouring gender equality simultaneously affected how children were treated. For example, data from my fieldwork sites indicates no gender difference in children’s receipt of pocket money or gifts from migrant parents, though children with siblings received less.

A young rural girl helping her grandmother with preparing spring onions

A young rural girl helping her grandmother with preparing spring onions

Cultural attitudes to gender further influenced children’s views about their family circumstances and care arrangements. For instance, children whose mothers had migrated could feel especially let down because their perceived natural caregivers had ‘dumped’ them. Children of home-alone fathers with migrant mothers also recognised that their parents faced social censure because gender norms prescribed a breadwinner father.

The emotional costs of a labour migration regime

Overall, how hard people of all ages worked and how tired they all seemed, physically and emotionally, stood out to me. Children worked from early in the morning till late in the evening, attending revision classes at school after dinner. Children who visited their migrant parents in the summer holidays stayed in a small room all day with homework sometimes alone until their parents returned tired from twelve-hour shifts. Everyone was so fixated on fulfilling their family obligations and on their hopes for security and a better future for the next generation that they did not question the material and social practices through which their lives were organised or the immense sacrifices that they incurred. Family and national strategies for rapid capital accumulation intertwined seamlessly.

A left behind activity room with a slogan 'care for let behind children, support their healthy development'

A left behind activity room with a slogan 'care for let behind children, support their healthy development'

Clearly, rural children disproportionately have been shouldering the emotional costs of a labour migration regime premised on the long-term separation of families. This separation occurs because urban employers and municipal governments do not pay a full family wage to migrants or provide them with public services, so children are fed, educated, housed and raised in the countryside. Their hard lives notwithstanding, though, some children liked to make fun of me. For instance, I asked one boy what his three wishes in life were and he replied, “To grow big feet and squash anyone who asks me what my three wishes in life are.”

The Children of China’s Great Migration by Rachel Murphy is published by Cambridge University Press in August 2020. The writing of this book was made possible by a British Academy Mid-Career Award.

Rachel Murphy is Professor in Chinese Development and Society. Her most recent article, on education and repertoires of care in migrant families in rural China, is forthcoming in Comparative Education Review. She is President of the British Association of Chinese Studies.