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The children of China’s rural poor

At the National People’s Congress in March this year, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao promised the country’s ‘have-nots’ would be at the centre of development goals over the next five years.

Most of China’s poor live in rural areas. But with increasing industrialisation and job opportunities in the cities, many have moved from the countryside to find work. The number of China’s rural poor has therefore more than halved, from 85 million in 1990 to 36 million in 2009.

The general view is that increasing urbanisation will continue to redistribute China’s wealth and reduce the numbers of rural poor even further, particularly as migrant workers send back money to their families. But for those remaining in rural communities, life frequently remains one of grinding poverty. Any wages sent back by family members tend to be low. And rural dwellers also receive fewer benefits from the state than their urban counterparts, who are helped by programmes such as subsidised housing.

Many rural migrants are also forced to leave their children behind. This is because migrants have no rights to services such as schooling or healthcare in the cities under the ‘hukou’ system of household registration. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, this means that 58 million children of migrant workers are brought up in their home villages, usually by grandparents. These children are left to face the disadvantages of a poor rural existence.

The BBC’s reporter, Tania Branigan, visited a rural community in Guizhou province in south-central China. The headteacher at Ruiyuan primary school told the reporter that for many of the children attending her school, the main challenge still remains lack of food in the villages where they come from. A large number of the school’s pupils go without food for long periods of the day and suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. This affects their ability to concentrate in lessons.

Investment is beginning to take place in rural regions, and shops and services are springing up in small towns. However, for villagers surviving on subsistence farming and the low wages sent home by migrant workers, high levels of poverty mean that few can afford any luxury items or services. Children are also expected to help out with family chores and farming, as well as doing their schoolwork. And many face long walks to the nearest schools. It is therefore unsurprising that the grades attained by rural children tend to be lower and far fewer rural students make it to university. So for now, the best many rural Chinese youngsters can hope for, is that they too will follow their parents to work in the cities, even though a lack of qualifications may mean ending up in the lowest-paid jobs. 

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