China Focus: A wound in society, left-behind children struggle with the law

Updated: 2012-05-30 16:37:00

(Xinhua)

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NANNING, May 30 (Xinhua) -- Before he was locked up in a detention center, the middle-school dropout hung out with friends taking heroin and mugging people for money he needed to buy the drug.

Xiaolin, not his real name, is one of 58-million left-behind children in China being looked after, or not in his case, by a single parent, grandparents, and sometimes a distant relative or neighbor. Either one or both their parents live away from their hometown in search of work.

The plight of this group, despite widespread attention from policymakers and the public, appears to be worsening as the juveniles are reportedly committing more crime these days.

Xiaolin's parents and brother do manual work in the city and go home only once a year, leaving him in custody of his grandfather in their countryside home in the southern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Bored of school, he dropped out at 13 without asking his parents. Last year, he became addicted to heroin and ran away from home.

Police in his hometown of Liuma township, Beiliu city, said Xiaolin and his 6-member gang had robbed more than 10 people over the past 10 months and stabbed one of the victims to death. GOING ASTRAY

Due to lack of parenting and self-discipline, many left-behind children go astray and become addicted to Internet games, drugs and gambling which often leads to more serious crimes.

Last year, two teenagers stood trial for robbing beggars on the streets of Changsha, capital of the central Hunan province. In just a month, they attacked nine beggars, killing three and injuring six.

The teenagers, both aged 16, were left-behind children from the southern province of Guangdong.

Two months ago, a left-behind teenager in Hunan's Loudi city, along with three friends, allegedly killed his grandfather, who had been his only caregiver for years. The suspects, aged from 13 to 15, also allegedly killed a family of three in their village.

Police say they had confessed to killing these people for their money, which they desperately needed to visit Internet cafes and buy cigarettes.

Out of a lust for money, a teenager in the central Hubei province abducted a 7-year-old boy hoping to get ransom money from his parents, but accidentally suffocated the child to death.

Experts warn the juvenile crime rate will continue to climb among rural left-behind children, whose number is on the rise.

Many migrant parents are yet to realize the potential harm they may do to their children by leaving them behind.

A village official in Yiyang city of Hunan said more than half of the adults there have migrated to cities and 60 percent of them have left their children under the care of grandparents.

Some parents turn a blind eye when their children quit school, as the heavy burden of high tuition fees is something they are happy to forego. And they also realize that an expensive college education, should their child reach that stage, might not guarantee him a decent job.

"When the children quit school, they are more likely to take up smoking, gambling, drugs and eventually commit more serious crimes such as theft and manslaughter," said Ouyang Wen, a judge who hears juvenile cases at Guangxi's high court.

China had 58 million left-behind children in 2009, according the last figure on the group from the All-China Women's Federation.

About 79.7 percent of these children were under the care of grandparents, 13 percent were staying with other relatives and 7.3 percent were uncared-for, it said.

"Even for children who are cared for by grandparents or relatives, lack of communication and counseling often causes psychological problems and hinders their development," said Ouyang.

A survey conducted by rural police stations in Hunan showed most juvenile offenders often begin skipping school when they are 10 to 12 years old. Once they quit, at an average age of 13, many had committed "minor offences" such as minor assault or theft. By 17, some of them had committed serious crimes.

Most young offenders surveyed spent only six to eight years at school. SOCIETY'S ROLE

With Children's Day approaching, the public is paying more attention to the plight of left-behind children.

"Their plight is a deep wound in the Chinese society," said Wu Xiaohui, a rural school teacher in Hunan.

Eleven years into his job in the remote village school, Wu said he is familiar with the left-behind children's agony. "They appear to be strong and carefree, but I know they are fragile at heart."

With their parents away, many of Wu's students babysit their younger siblings. Some even take their baby brothers and sisters to school.

Noted sociologist Wang Kaiyu said the remedy to these children's plight is to narrow the urban-rural gap and create more jobs in the countryside to keep parents at home.

On the other hand, Beijing University professor Lu Jiehua suggests cities grant migrant children equal access to public schools, medication and other social security services.

In many rural provinces, governments and individuals have moved to improve the living conditions of the left-behind children.

Retired teacher Zhang Bingzhu, 72, has opened a free caring center for left-behind children from his home village in Chaohu city of eastern China's Anhui province, one of the major sources of migrant laborers. Over the past five years, he has cared for dozens of children, reading them stories, helping them with school work and playing games with them.

The provincial government of Anhui plans to open at least 1,000 centers for left-behind children in the coming three years. These places will have TVs, books, magazines, sports facilities and phones for children to call their parents at anytime.