In grandpa’s charge

The plight of China’s “left-behind” children

Some 31m live apart from both parents, who have moved for work in cities

EVERY SPRING, the Qingming festival brings families together for displays of respect and sorrow at the burial sites of their deceased relatives. Some travel a long way to reunite over the three-day holiday, which ended on April 5th. Among them this year were the Zhaos of Leyun, a village in the lush Daba mountains of Sichuan province in the south-west. For migrant parents like them, there are living relationships that cause quiet grief, too. When their daughter, Lin, was just one month old the couple left her with her grandmother to allow them to return to their factory jobs on the coast. That was six years ago. Since then, Lin has spent only about 30 days with her parents. To her, this holiday’s get-together was with virtual strangers.

There are about 31m people in China like Lin—children who have been left behind in their home towns or villages, usually in the care of relatives, while both of their parents work elsewhere. The largest wave of internal migration in history—involving about 300m people who have moved to cities over the past four decades—has battered many other families, too. In 2015 Unicef, the UN agency for children, estimated that more than one in three children in China, or close to 100m, had experienced the prolonged absence of at least one parent. In nine out of ten cases, the main reason was migration.

Another important cause has been China’s rigid system of household registration, known as hukou. Someone without hukou in the city where he or she lives is frequently denied…