Zhang Zhigang was seven when his parents left their hometown to work in the city. He has hardly seen his parents since then. Zhang is now 15.
Zhang is not alone. He is but one of the millions of children who get "left behind" in the villages when their parents move to the cities in search of work and a better life.
Zhang, and many children like him, have attracted the attention of both government officials and social development experts. More than 100 participants at a high-profile seminar last week called on the Chinese government, social organizations and the media to devote more attention and to do more to help children like Zhang.
Huang Qingyi, vice-chairwomen of the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), said that society at large is not fully aware of the importance and urgency of the problem.
The two-day seminar that was held in Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan Province, was the first high-profile meeting dedicated to the issue. It was attended by officials from both the central government and provincial government of Henan and hosted by the ACWF, the country's largest women's organization, and the China Family Culture Research Institute.
The seminar marked a fresh effort by the two organizers to highlight a problem that has been ignored for more than two decades. The issue was dragged back into the spotlight following the suicide of a 13-year-old girl on February 19 this year.
The girl, A Chun (not her real name), lived in a remote village in central China's Anhui Province, one of China's major grain producing areas. For A Chun, a fifth grade pupil at a local primary school, life after school was too hard to bear.
There were no cartoons on TV, toys or snacks for this little girl. There was no care or love from her parents. Her parents had left her and her younger brother in the care of grandparents, along with some cousins.
Her parents and two uncles left their homes to work in Wenzhou, a coastal city more than 1,000 km away in east China's Zhejiang Province.
Loneliness was just one of her woes. As the oldest child in the brood, A Chun had to help care for the other five children. In addition to school homework, she had chores to do each day like fetch water, cook and do the laundry.
When A Chun felt that she had enough, she decided to take her own life. On the evening of February 19th, ten days after the traditional Chinese lunar New Year (Spring Festival), the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar featuring family reunion, A Chun committed suicide. During the festival holidays, her parents didn't come back home.
A Chun's suicide sent shockwaves across the country.
This problem of abandoned children has given rise to a new buzzword that is slowly gaining popularity in the media: "Liu Shou" or "left behind" children.
Duan Chengrong, a professor with the Population Research Institute of Renmin University of China based in Beijing, speaking at the seminar, said that there were more than 20 million children in the countryside who were growing up without either one or both parents.
Official figures indicate there are at least 13 million migrant workers, who drive the country's rapidly growing economy. They typically fill the lower-paid positions as construction workers, factory workers, waiters or waitresses, domestic workers and drivers.
But leaving their children behind has had a negative impact on the children's performance at school, health and personalities, said Professor Duan.
"Some children were found to be unsociable, depressed and reluctant to take part in group activities at school," said Duan.
A survey conducted in six villages in Anhui Province recently showed that of the 1,180 students polled, about 74 percent, or 868 students, had at least one parent who was a migrant worker. Some 31 percent, or 363 students, were living without both their parents.
The survey indicated that nearly 60 percent of the students polled had psychological problems. About 30 percent of the 1,180 children said they "loathed" their parents.
Professor Hao Maishou, a sociologist with the Academy of Social Sciences of Tianjin, suggested that local governments play a bigger role in helping the "liu shou", especially in the area of education.
"Children are left behind in the countryside mainly because they are not allowed to receive education in cities," said Hao, speaking at the seminar. "City governments and educational departments should shoulder the responsibility of giving educational opportunities to children from rural areas."
He also suggested that local governments do more to train guardians to improve their ability to communicate and interact with their wards.
Huang, of the women's federation, urged people from all walks of life to do their bit in creating a better and healthier environment for the "liu shou". Only in this way can China ensure that children "left behind" aren't left out.
(Xinhua News Agency June 1, 2005)