Pennsylvania State University
Anchell Scholarship for Documentary Photography
Left Behind Children
When Guocheng Ma and his wife, Chunxia Zhu, left rural Wenzhou to work in Shanghai, the most populous city in China, they knew the sacrifices they faced as migrant workers.
“The hardest thing was not being able to see my kids all year round,” Zhu said.
During Lunar New Year, a weeks-long holiday when Chinese families traditionally reunite; Ma and Zhu were able to see their family for just one day. For the rest of the time, their three children, Meiting, 17, Leting, 16, and Jinhao, 9, stayed in a boarding school on weekdays and a nearby rental house on weekends.
Ma and Zhu work in Shanghai to make more money to support the family. But there is little they can do to help their children day-to-day when they live so far apart.
“Meiting called me last night. They ran out of cooking oil,” Zhu said, with tears lingering in her eyes. “She said oils in the stores were so expensive. She borrowed some from their neighbors so they could finally cook themselves some food.”
For several months this year Ma and Zhu ran a breakfast business in a tiny shop on Tengyue Road, right across from Yangpu District Central Hospital in suburban Shanghai. Space is so tight that Ma slept in a nook under a stairwell. Profits are small, too. The shop rents for about 20,000 yuan ($3,300) per year. On a good morning. Ma says the business takes in about 150 yuan ($25).
This situation is not uncommon in China. According to China Youth Daily (use Google Translate to view in English), about 61 million children under 17 year old have been “left-behind” by parents who migrated from their rural hometowns to cities in search of higher-paying work. It is unclear how accurate this estimate is, although the explosion of left behind children is being mirrored by an increase in serious social problems, such as juvenile crime and in extreme cases, suicide.
The size of rural families is a factor. China’s “one-child” policy was initiated in 1980 and was abandoned in October 2015. During its 35-year implementation, urban couples were more likely to comply because they received better social welfare support from the government and they were “less dependent on their children than rural couples.” In contrast, rural parents perceived a great need to raise multiple children to provide financial support in old age.
Ma and his wife says they are trying to provide the best life they can afford to their three children. This summer Meiting, their eldest daughter, was enrolled in a high school in a small city near Wenzhou. The family struggled How to pay her tuition and make her “financially equal” to her classmates who were from more urban areas.
“I don’t want her to be looked down by her friends,” Zhu said. “At least, I need to get her a new cell phone.”
Ma and Zhu finally decided to sublease their breakfast shop and come home. Because of the high cost of living in Shanghai, they said they were not making enough money to justify being so far away from their children.
After reaching the decision not to return to Shanghai, Ma and Zhu enjoyed a short reunion with their children, then left for Oubeizhen, a small county about 40 miles north of their home in the Mashang Mount are of Wenzhou. They would be away from their kids again, but much closer to home.