Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour

CHINA: What Price Young Lives?

Ma Guihua and Jiang Guibin*

HEZHOU, China, Dec 28 2009 (IPS) - As more and more rural Chinese bid farewell to their impoverished home villages in their pursuit of a better life in bigger cities, leaving behind their young children in the care of relatives or aging parents seems only a small price to pay, especially in times of financial crisis.

But for some, the price is simply too high.

When a three-story brick building in Yanghui Village in Hezhou, in south China’s Guangxi Autonomous Region, was gutted by fire in November, the majority of the victims turned out to be children.

Yang Chunfeng still vividly recalls what happened on that fateful morning. Awakened by the sound of a blast, he rushed out of his house and saw a huge chunk of the building next door had been blown off while flames were raging high. Villagers coming to the rescue were soon carrying out soot-blackened children while others were screaming and running for their lives.

“All the children being taken out of the building were burned bare, with no hair or clothes left,” recalled Yang, who is in his 50s. An explosion at an illegal firecracker workshop (employing children) inside the building triggered the massive fire.

Thirteen of the 14 victims, all students of Zhiyang Primary School, were aged 7 and 15. Two of them died of severe burns. All of them either had one or two parents working in cities away from home.

Yanghui Village is about two hours’ drive from Hezhou City, located east of the picturesque city of Guilin and bordering Hunan and Guangdong provinces. With a population of 3,000, half of them children under 14, the village is home to only 4,000 mu (231 acres) of arable land for tobacco and paddy rice. Per capita annual income from farming is a pitiable 600 yuan (about 85 U.S. dollars), hardly enough to feed a family.

Unable to make ends meet, villagers choose to work in other cities in Guangxi, including Guilin, Wuzhou and Liuzhou, or the neighbouring Guangdong Province, where labor-intensive jobs from export-oriented factories had propped up the local economy.

According to Yang Youji, the village chief, over 1,000 villagers leave to work in construction, textile or brick-making factories, making an average of 18,000 yuan (2,572 dollars) a year each—way beyond their farm earnings. They are forced, however, to part with their children, totaling 1,050 within the entire village.

Statistics indicate that some 130 million farmers left their home villages in 2007—when the global financial crisis began—to join the ranks of migrant workers in cities across China and become the main labour force in construction, manufacturing, textile, processing and tertiary sectors. As a result, over 58 million children were left in their rural homes, where their kin, usually grandparents, looked after them. Children under 14 accounted for more than 40 million of these young people.

Since the economy took a sweeping downturn, triggered by the collapse of financial giants in the United States, many small factories catering exclusively to foreign markets have gone bankrupt. Well-paid jobs are scarce and reduced earnings could only cover some basic family needs.

In Dongguan City, Guangdong Province, alone, 909 foreign-owned enterprises had to close down in 2007. By mid-2008, revealed the National Development and Reform Commission, 67,000 small and medium-size enterprises had gone bust.

Some of the children left behind by their parents have had to assume part of the ensuing financial burden by trying to earn their own keep to help defray the costs of their education, including their daily allowances. Working at the firecracker factory helped them achieve this goal. After all, all they needed to do was to insert fuses into the 1,000-plus beehive-like, powder-filled, little tubes coiled up to resemble a big plate.

Yang Xiaoli, a six-grader from Zhiyang Primary School, felt proud of what she could earn in the firecracker workshop. “For every coil I finished, I got 3 jiao (about 4 U.S. cents),” she said, adding that within two to three hours before school started in the morning, she could insert 3,000 fuses into firecrackers, making around one yuan (14 cents). During school breaks, she could generate about 3 yuan (42 cents) a day. “But if I work too long, my eyes hurt.”

To her knowledge, many children in her neighbourhood had been doing the same, providing cheap labour and using their earnings to buy snacks and school supplies. The older ones used their money for more personal items. “I heard that some children, maybe due to their adolescence, felt uneasy about asking money from their grandparents for their personal stuff,” explained Chen Xiaojie, the head teacher.

On hearing that his son, Yang Ke, was hurt in the fire, Yang Qisheng rushed to the hospital. After the blast, his face swollen and his skin blackened, he scurried back home crying.

“As a parent, who wouldn’t like to bring his children along so he personally could look after them? But my earnings could not afford his school fees and the cost of living in a city, so I had no choice but leave him with my parents,” said Yang, who is separated from his wife. He also provides for the medical needs of his parents by sending them part of his income from Guangdong.

“I am the only one that the whole family could count on,” he sighed. His son lives in a room next to the house of the grandparents, some 300 metres from the workshop.

Feng Lan’s nine-year-old daughter was killed on the spot. “I only hope my eldest daughter [also one of the victims] could make it. Otherwise, I don’t know how I could live on,” said Feng, as she awaited news about the condition of her other daughter, who was lying unconscious in a hospital. Days later, she finally received word about her daughter, and it was not what she had hoped to hear.

Feng and her husband have been working in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, for years, leaving the girls with their grandparents. Today, they are left only with the photos of their daughters, stored in an aunt’s mobile phone.

Yang Qishao and his brother had no idea that their sister, a six-grader at Zhiyang, had been working. “She bought us shoes, socks, sometimes snacks. We didn’t know where the money came from,” said Yang. “If I had money, I would buy my sister some clothes. Hers had been burned to rags,” said Yang, oblivious to what happened to her sister.

Most of the guardians, as well as the teachers, said they knew nothing about the children’s money-making activity until the deadly blast.

The city government had allocated one million yuan (140,000 dollars) for the blast victims’ treatment. But given the severity of the injuries, the children will take a long time to recover. Many will carry their burn scars for life

(*This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific.)

(*The authors also write for China Features.)

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