BEIJING • More than nine million children have been "left behind" in China's countryside by parents who have moved to its towns and cities to find work, Beijing has said.
The plight of such children, who are usually looked after by grandparents but sometimes have no guardians at all, is one of the most emotive consequences of China's decades-long economic boom.
Hundreds of millions of migrants have moved from rural areas to take jobs in urban centres, where their children would have limited access to schooling and healthcare under China's household registration system, forcing them to be left with relatives.
They sometimes see their mother and father only once a year.
A government census showed there were 9.02 million "left behind" children in the country, the Civil Affairs Ministry said in a statement on its website yesterday.
Nearly 90 per cent - 8.05 million - lived with their grandparents, 3 per cent were cared for by other relatives, and 4 per cent - almost 400,000 children - were entirely on their own.
Stories of those unable to fend for themselves periodically rock the nation. Last year, four siblings aged between five and 14 who had been left unattended by their parents for months apparently committed suicide by drinking pesticide in the remote south-western province of Guizhou.
OF THE NINE MILLION...
are living with their grandparents. There are 8.05 million such "left behind" children.
are under the care of other relatives.
live entirely alone. There are almost 400,000 of these children.
"The flow of migrant workers driven by urbanisation has affected the family unit and many parents lack a real awareness of their responsibilities," Mr Tong Lihua, director of a Beijing-based legal aid organisation for teenagers, told the official Xinhua news agency.
The new 9.02 million official figure is in marked contrast to a previous statistic of 61 million children given by an All-China Women's Federation survey in 2013.
The Civil Affairs Ministry said the decline was largely due to changing definitions, with the women's federation defining "left behind" children as those under 18 years of age, with one migrant worker parent; while the new census restricted the category to those under 16 with two migrant parents, or with one migrant parent and the other incapable of guardianship.
The new definition was "more in line with China's national conditions", the ministry said.
The statement also announced a guardianship programme which orders parents of "left behind" children who live alone to return home to care for the children or seek the help of reliable guardians.
The programme aims to ensure that all "left behind" children are under proper care by the end of next year.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA