Over the past generation, about 270m Chinese labourers have left their villages to look for work in cities. It is the biggest voluntary migration ever. Many of those workers have children; most do not take them along. The Chinese call these youngsters liushou ertong, or “left-behind children”. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, an official body, and UNICEF, the UN organisation for children, there were 61m children below the age of 17 left behind in rural areas in 2010. In several of China’s largest provinces, including Sichuan and Jiangsu, more than half of all rural children have been left behind (see map). In effect, some villages consist only of children and grandparents. This is a blight on the formative years of tens of millions of people. Alongside the expulsion of millions of peasants from the land they have farmed and the degradation of the country’s soil, water and air, this leaving behind is one of the three biggest costs of China’s unprecedented and transformative industrialisation.
At its heart, the problem of the left-behind is one of misplaced hopes. Like so many parents, China’s migrants are deferring pleasure now (that of raising their children) for the hope of a better life later (to be bought with the money they earn). One result has been the stunning growth of cities and the income they generate. Another has been a vast disruption of families—and the children left behind are bearing the burden of loss.The lengthy story is heart-wrenching, and reminds us of the experiences of the many children left behind in Central America by parents working without documentation in the United States. But, in China's case, the problem is home-grown, so the country could readily do something to fix it by getting rid of the hukou system.