Fewer Left Behind: China's Not-Lost Children

Fewer Left Behind: China's Not-Lost Children

What happens when you leave your home in the country in search for better opportunities in the city? What if you were a grown-up? A parent? What if you left more than just a home behind, but you left behind your family - your children?

On March 9, 2017, an event was held at the University of British Columbia called "Fewer Left Behind". This event focused on what happens to children who are left behind when their parents leave to seek jobs in the city. These children (in Chinese, they are called "留守儿童") suffer significant psychological and emotional effects.

When I arrived, the first things I saw were the photographs. Frame after frame of children with varying degrees of emotion, from happiness to exhaustion, lined the walls. 

Jesse Ding's photography (slideshow):

Jiang Nengjie's photography (slideshow):

What particularly struck me about these photographs was how close all of the children were. And they had to be because all they had was each other: they were each other's new family. A found family borne out of loneliness.

For example, take Ding's photographs with the children in modern clothing: Yes, the children do look more well-taken care of but what I noticed was that their expressions never changed when they went from ill-fitting clothes to a stylish manner of dress. They were still happy because although what they were wearing was different, the people around them, their friends, did not change.

Iris Cai, the coordinator of the event, led the audience through two films. One was called "When I Grow Up" and the other was "Generation Left Behind". 

After the films, there was a panel discussion with Yushu Zhu (expert in Chinese urban communities), Donna Seto (expert in children in conflicts), and Marlyn Chisholm (representative from OneSky).

From left to right: Donna Seto, Marlyn Chisholm, Yushu Zhu

From left to right: Donna Seto, Marlyn Chisholm, Yushu Zhu

The three women discussed how the Chinese dream was only achievable in cities and how it came at a great cost with lots of suffering especially for the children who had to be left behind while the parents went to earn money. 

In the films, it was noted that the left-behind children experienced detrimental psychological effects: they were more likely to drop out of school, do crime and commit suicide. 

Statistics of left-behind children

Statistics of left-behind children

However, Zhu says that there was not much of a difference in school performance between rural and urban children. There have been studies comparing migrant children and local children as well as local children and left-behind children. And so, while there have been significant psychological differences as shown in the statistics above, there is not much in terms of academic intelligence.

They also discussed the hukou system. This is a government system that determines where citizens can live in China. The system, in effect, limits the movement of those living in the rural parts of China into the urban parts, forcing parents to leave behind their children in order to make money. They are unable to bring their children along due to economic reasons.

The hukou system is not necessarily a bad thing because it has helped in creating less slums, says Zhu. Dr. Seto adds that the hukou system has made children more resilient and they are able to build a family within themselves.


The women offered some suggestions on how to deal with this problem:

  • help children by giving them support (especially from the government's side)
  • being more conscious of what we are buying since China is dependent on our economy
  • reduce the cost for children living with parents in the cities
  • documentaries and photography

In regards to documentaries and photography, Dr. Seto emphasized that there is an inherently political nature of these genres of media since it says more about the Western gaze rather than the actual people in front of the camera. Interviewers ask certain questions that are intended to draw out a specific answer from the interviewee; lighting and angles are used to portray a certain perspective; the editing chops and moves scenes around to tell a particular kind of story that is intended to evoke some kind of emotion in the audience.

An alternative would be to have the left-behind children take a camera with them as they go about their day. From there, we can see things from their perspective without the bias of the filmmaker.

These children are not lost in the conventional sense: their parents know where to find them. But these exist, literally and metaphorically, at the edge of China's periphery, and subsequently, the world.

The evening ended without much answers and the audience left with more questions about what action to take. But this event raised awareness about the left-behind children. While we may not be able to solve the problem right now, it is important that we remember that there are children who wait for their parents to come home, not knowing when they will ever return.

Boston vs. UBC: University Life & Delicious Desserts

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories Ep. 9 "Ham Cutlets"

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories Ep. 9 "Ham Cutlets"