Digital Culture, Media Industries

China on the Move and the Children Left Behind

Xiaoying Han

My research interest in children’s media grew out of my time studying for a master’s degree in journalism. I came across an online forum called ‘Left-behind Children Bar’, the members of which were mainly left-behind children in China. Many of them posted about their hatred towards their parents and their feelings of abandonment. Some even expressed that they felt suicidal. The stories of these left-behind children drew my attention (of course the posts weren’t ‘fact-checked’). I became really curious about why these children were left behind in their hometowns and how did the parents fulfil their parenting roles from a distance. That’s the starting point of my PhD journey. My research project focuses on the role of social media within the Chinese separated families. It explores how family relationships and social media mutually shape each other.

Speaking of the left-behind children, I cannot avoid mentioning internal migration in China.
Since the 1980s, the contemporary Chinese society has been marked by immense rural-urban migration. The majority of the migrant workers have left their children behind in the children’s birthplaces. It was estimated that in 2010 there were 61 million “left-behind children” in China, of which 47% had both parents as migrants, 36% had a migrant father, and 17% had a migrant mother (ACWF, 2013).

In July 2019, I conducted a pilot study in China (Shenyang and Beijing). I interviewed eight migrant workers who have left-behind children. Their stories have left an imprint on my memory and gave me a lot of insights in terms of communication via social media.
It is interesting to find out that, based on the interviews, the communication between the migrant workers and their left-behind children centres around schoolwork. Very often, according to my informants, their online conversations began with homework or exam results. Not only one but three informants mentioned that they had to assist their children to finish their homework during video calls. They would even ask their neighbours, through social media apps, to help their children when it is necessary.

On the other hand, according to my informants, in reality, there was always a huge gap between their ‘commands’ online and the actual behaviour of the left-behind children offline. The role of carers should be taken into consideration here. There were conflicts of opinion regarding parenting between the parents and the carers, especially among those informants whose children were taken care of by the grandparents. This reminds me that one important aspect of parenting from a distance, to quote Madianou and Miller (2012, p. 72) is ‘that of discipline and control which, as in offline parenting, can often require negotiation and be resisted’.

Although generally welcomed by parents, new communication technologies do not necessarily solve the problems caused by family separation. On the contrary, they may actually amplify the awkwardness in communication. Three out of four male informants told me that they did not know how to deal with the dead air time during the video calls with their children. They just found the online conversations embarrassing. As Bao (pseudonym), a lathe operator working in Beijing, put it: ‘I taught my son how to play basketball and swim. We are good buddies. But during a video call, after five minutes, I simply didn’t know what to say, neither did my son’.

The pilot study also helps me better understand the different life trajectories of the migrant workers. What emerged from the pilot research is one relatively neglected dimension of migration: the sense of desperation of being the main household breadwinner. The informants have the feeling that they have no alternative but to endure long periods of separation from their family members including from their children.

Lili (pseudonym), one of my female informants aged 35, lost her husband in 2018. After her husband died suddenly, Lili was expected to be the breadwinner for her children. With the hope of earning more money, she decided to work in Beijing in order to help her two daughters to finish their higher education and pursue their dreams. This put her in a difficult financial situation. The interview I did with Lili took place in the 15-square-meter room she rented in a suburb located on the outskirt of Beijing. The living condition was poor, but that’s all what she could afford.

With a huge contrast, the interview I did with Xiaopeng (pseudonym), a male air conditioning engineer aged 34, took place in his spacious office located in the centre of Beijing. Xiaopeng’s eldest son had been sent to different private kindergartens in Beijing. The 7-year-old boy is now left behind in his birthplace in the Liaoning Province and taken care of by his paternal grandmother due to the fact that he was unable to attend public primary school in Beijing without the Beijing hukou (户口). In the Chinese context, the hukou status, which designates one’s place of origin, determines one’s access to social benefits and education resources. Xiaopeng installed a smart camera at home so that he could ‘monitor’ his son’s daily life from Beijing. His son meanwhile could also talk to his parents whenever he wanted after school. As Xiaopeng put it: ‘I have tried my best to make it up to my son. I visited him as frequently as I could.’

‘I had no choice’ was the phrase that I often heard from my informants during the pilot research. Their left-behind children have to bear the consequence of family separation, a result of parents’ decisions.  Although media technology seems to play a role in facilitating parenting from a distance, the nature of the long-distance family relationships is yet to be unveiled. I am really looking forward to conducting my fieldwork in the near future to solve the puzzle.

Image: Li Min / China Daily (