Guizhou tragedy a lesson on Urbanization

Updated: 2012-11-23 08:16

By Lisa Carducci (China Daily)

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The discovery of five children's bodies in a dumpster in Bijie, Guizhou province, recently has added fuel to the debate on the country's wealth gap, especially because the victims had taken shelter in the garbage container to escape from the cold. The tragedy shows how complicated the situation in China is and the extent of challenges that lie ahead for the government.

Some netizens have blamed the local authorities and the five children's school as evil criminals for the tragedy. But this is not justified, for the school's teachers visited the children's homes several times to persuade them to return to classes after they had dropped out of school. The children had been accommodated by local civil affairs authorities but later chose to be vagrants again as "such a lifestyle was freer". Some other netizens have gone even further by totally denying China's achievements in social security over the past decades.

It is indeed the responsibility of governments at all levels to take care of vagrants, especially in winter when they are most vulnerable. But there is nothing to suggest that the Chinese government is any less responsible than its counterparts in developed countries. Even in an advanced country like Japan, more than 2,000 people starved to death last year as the economy stagnated. In Spain, some people have been forced to collect food from garbage as the country sinks deeper into the euro debt crisis.

The tragedies in Japan and Spain, however, cannot be an excuse for the Chinese government to shirk its responsibilities. But one has to understand that China is a vast country and it needs time to narrow the income gap between rich and poor and urban and rural residents. It is undeniable, though, that the Chinese government has to take more urgent measures to help the rural poor. The key question, however, is what those measures should be.

The Guizhou tragedy highlights one of the most sensible issues in China - the condition of migrant workers and their left-behind children, as well as that of the children who accompany their parents to large cities.

In 2011, China's migrant population reached more than 252 million (18.7 percent of the total population). Since the beginning of reform and opening-up, a huge number of rural workers have migrated to urban areas, contributing to China's fast-paced economic development and urbanization.

Farmers migrate from the countryside to the cities in search of better-paid work. When both parents leave home for work, their children are often left in the care of grandparents who may not be able to bring them up according to the demands of modern society. The number of such left-behind children in China is estimated to be 50 million.

Just like the five victims in Guizhou, a large number of children are left alone in the countryside. Parents may call them once in a while over the phone from the cities where they often live in miserable conditions but which they still find better than their rural homes because they can earn some money. Once the parents are "established" in a city, many of them get their children to join them.

Some inland cities have only recently started providing migrants with social security, including pensions and other insurance. But the stringent hukou (household registration) system is still restrictive in the country.

I am familiar with the situation because I ventured into rural regions to collect material for my Work in Progress - Chinese Education From a Foreign Expert's Perspective, published this year by China Intercontinental Press, and also because I live on the outskirts of Beijing where migrant workers are legions. They have built houses, without running water and garbage disposal facilities, and created a village of 800 households. More than 1,000 migrants' children attend a primary school (under the municipality's administration) where conditions are extremely poor. The school also holds middle-school classes because the children can't compete with urban children to enter other schools. No wonder, these youths quit studies after the nine-year compulsory schooling.

Migrant workers are essential to building cities. About 7 million migrant workers live in Beijing alone, which is one-third of the city's population. After the 2010 census, a government report said more than 100 million farmers would move to cities by 2020, for which unequal development of urban and rural areas is said to be the major cause.

The trend of urbanization is irreversible. But urbanization doesn't mean endless development of urban areas. Urbanization should reach the remote regions, too, instead of taking their labor resources to cities.

So why not bring modernity and progress to the countryside? And why not develop the rural economies and provide urban-style social services in rural areas, rather than leave the villages to their own fate?

Instead of using migrants in the city as cheap labor - though providing social security to them as compensation - the country should provide social services for the elderly and the poorest of the poor who don't migrate to cities. Children would not have to move to cities with their parents, which creates greater social imbalance, if schools were built in their villages, and competition among fellow rural students would be fairer.

At the recently concluded 18th Party Congress, the country's leaders promised to improve migrant workers' life and work conditions. But it would make better sense to invest in the urbanization of the countryside, providing local residents work without having to migrate to cities, than to pay traveling expenses to family members to visit their migrant parents or offspring who are too busy to go home.

Left-behind children and migrants' children in cities need real help, not compassion. In Beijing, several NGOs and some individuals help such children by holding free classes to teach subjects like English, music and drawing. On Saturdays, I teach migrants' children in a middle school to make handicrafts out of waste paper, newspapers and magazines, and used clothes, chopsticks, plastic bottles, and cigarette and mooncake boxes.

Before the rural areas develop to reach the level of cities, people need to lend a hand rather than sit and complain.

The author is a Canadian scholar based in Beijing.

(China Daily 11/23/2012 page9)