More than 60 million Chinese children are growing up without their parents, paying the price of their country’s dash to prosperity. Matthew Carney reports on the generation left behind.
Li Yikui, 13, hasn’t seen his dad in four years. His mum visits once a year. When asked if he misses them, his answer is silent: a quivering chin and a teardrop tumbling down his cheek.
There are 61 million kids like Li Yikui. In parts of central China, not far from the birthplace of modern China’s founding father Mao Zedong, 80 per cent of children are growing up without their parents.
"If they decided to stay in our village just because of me, I’d feel very guilty... a big burden" – Li Yikui
Mothers and fathers leave rural villages and towns for the big city factory jobs that have helped make China an economic powerhouse. Some return briefly; some never do. So children are farmed out to grandparents or boarding schools or left to fend mostly for themselves.
"I get up early to prepare simple breakfast and go to school. When I get home I wash clothes and make dinner" – Xiang Ling, 14, who since the age of 10 has cared for her ill grandmother and three young cousins
For many parents it’s a devil’s bargain. They sacrifice time with their child to make the money they think will better their child’s life.
But some children have never known love. So they cannot handle affection when it is offered by volunteers and social workers.
"I want to leave and I will leave. I don’t want contact" – Xiang Biao, 14, whose parents left him with his grandmother when he was a baby
Many kids suffer outright rejection.
"You go wherever you want to go! Don’t stay in my house!" – grandmother screaming at 16-year-old girl Xie Bingxin
As China Correspondent Matthew Carney reports, a few local governments and NGOs are trying to fill the parental void, but it is just too vast. Some fear that without big reforms by the national government, tens of millions of children will be lost - at a major cost to the nation.
"Of the 61 million (left behind children) a third will get involved in short term or long term criminal activities. Another 20 million might be in mental institutions, short term or long term... I can’t imagine what that will do to China" – Joseph Lim, Children Charity International
“Generation Left Behind” – airs on Foreign Correspondent 9.30pm Tuesday September 6 on ABC & iview. Also airs 10.30am Thursday September 8 on ABC & iview and 6.30pm Saturday September 10 on News 24. Also on iview.