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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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China's Children on the Fringe

Masaru Takagi

Feb. 22, 2016

Millions of migrant workers in China have uprooted their families to find jobs in the country's bustling urban centers. Many have brought children with them, but life for these youngsters can be difficult.

About 40 million kids have had their lives disrupted. It can be hard for them to attend regular schools, and that's leading some to destructive behavior.

One online video shows youngsters ganging up on a smaller boy, and three of the attackers are children of migrant workers. Officials say more than half the crimes committed by minors today involve these kids.

Migrant worker communities can be found in cities across China. Many migrant children cannot attend regular schools, due to registration and other problems. The classrooms are frequently scenes of fighting and bullying.

"Many kids spend the first half of the school year here and the latter half in another school," says Xu Jianshe of Leshan Experimental School. "Frequent relocations make the children extremely unstable and emotionally upset."

Wang Aofei, who is in grade 4, has been barred from other schools for being a troublemaker.

"I beat up anyone who makes fun of me," he says.

Aofei lives with his brother and his father, Wang Hongting. He lost his mother 5 years ago in an accident. The family moved to Zhengzhou after her death.

When the boys aren't at school, they're left by themselves. Wang works as a part-time porter at a local market, earning less than $400 a month.

"My job barely supports our family," Wang Hongting says. "I have no time to spend with my sons."

A festival was recently held in the city, and the boys didn't return home after school.

Their father had to search around town, but he came up empty-handed. Eventually the kids returned home.

"Above all, I'm worried about my sons' future," Wang Hongting says. "They don't listen to what adults tell them. They have no discipline. I'm responsible for all this as their father."

Experts say there are reasons to be concerned.

"These children often end up becoming destructive to others, rather than contributing to society," says Tong Dahuan, from Chongqing University of Posts and Telecom.

Migrant workers play a key role in Chinese industry. Yet in many cases their children exist on the fringes of society. Unless people bring these kids into the fold, China will pay a heavy price.


Ichiro Korogi, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the Kanda University of International Studies, joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: So, about how many people are migrating from the countryside?

Korogi: About 270 million migrant workers come into the cities from rural areas. And they're coming with children, roughly about 40 million. It's a really huge number of people migrating from rural areas to the cities and as the reporter said, migrant workers and their children from villages face many kinds of discriminatory measures, like they cannot access public schooling or medical treatment. And they don't feel like they belong to the cities. That's what the problem is.

Beppu: On the other hand, I understand then that leaving the children back behind, that doesn't seem to be a good option either.

Korogi: Well there are not any other choices they could take because they have to support their families. They cannot make enough money so they have to come to the cities to find jobs. And there are now about 61 million children left behind in the villages, and their grandparents and extended family members are taking care of them. They easily get exposed to harassment or violence, even human trafficking. In the worst cases they even commit suicide from their mental distress.

So the most challenging problem China is now facing is that there is a huge discrepancy between the city and rural areas. Their problem is the house registration system, which was made back in 1958 to control the population. So the Chinese society is split into two different classes. One is urban dwellers, city dwellers, the other is rural dwellers. And they don't communicate or interact, basically, at all. So there are two different kinds of people living in China.

Beppu: Talking about this registration system, doesn't it seem something as if it's punishing these migrant workers who do so much for the sake of the country's economic growth?

Korogi: Well, I think that there is some economic rationality behind this very strange system. They could lower the cost of made-in-China goods so that they can enhance the competitiveness of their exports. That's how China's economy grew in the last decades. But it's an unfair system that favors the cities. People in the rural areas are totally abandoned. So they are not enjoying the same rights as citizens.

Beppu: What is the central government doing, faced with this problem?

Korogi: There are some new guidelines issued by the central government, like they're trying to force the local governments to take care of those left-behind kids. And also they're trying to abolish to some extent the registration system. But they just leave it up to the local governments. It's all at their discretion. So they're overburdened and overloaded with social services. Their financial conditions are not good enough. So I just doubt if they could implement this policy anyway.

Beppu: It seems that something big has to be done, something more drastically.

Korogi: They have to take more drastic measures. First, to create a more balanced mode of development they have to put more money in villages. Their farming is terrible, so they have to put more money in farming so people don't have to go to the cities, cities flooded with people. So this is the basic problem they have to solve.