She studies dutifully on a makeshift desk made up of plastic bins and a wobbly wooden board in a room no larger than 10 square meters. Other than a 120 cm long hard mattress bed, piles of clothes, and a smattering of kitchenware and two electric fans, eleven-year-old Yaxin is home alone.

According to a report by local news outlet Huashang her lifeline to the rest of the world outside the room in Xi’an’s Weiyang District is an idle mobile phone left charging by the bed, and she has been instructed by her parents to use it only in case of any emergencies,

During summer breaks from school, Yaxin leaves Sichuan to reunite with her parents who are migrant workers in Xi’an. During the day, while her parents work, no one is able to look after Yaxin, so she stays at home.

“I wish there were other children to play with. But I don’t want to attend cram school. I want to be with mom,” she says.

Her father Zhang Juncai, a mason, told Huashang that for now it is the only way for the family to be together until they can save enough money to buy a home in their native Sichuan.

Yet Yaxing is one of the lucky ones. Lucky compared to 10 million primary and secondary school aged peers who are left behind in villages and cared for by grandparents and other relatives while both parents strive to make ends meet in other cities.

A white paper released last week by On the Road to School, a Beijing based non-governmental organization stated that over 23 million children were living without one parent. It believes that of the 10 million children living without both their parents, more than half only see them once each year.

Millions left behind

The white paper “Left Behind Children’s Psychological Conditions” is based on a survey completed across China’s 17 mainly rural provinces on close to 15,000 students from grades three to eight.

Li Yifei, supervisor of the survey and a professor at Beijing Normal University says that government statistics showing the phenomenon of left behind rural children being 90 percent concentrated in the country’s central and western regions were inaccurate. The NGO’s data reveals that while just over half of these children hail from central and western China, 44.2 percent are from China’s eastern, northern and northeast - an indication that the problem is more geographically widespread than the official government line.

China’s economic transformation and staggering pace of urbanization has created large migrant populations as millions of migrants seek opportunities that are concentrated in the country’s eastern seaboard. Strict residency laws targeting migrants leave them outside the purview of public services including schooling for their children and millions have opted to leave their children to another relative or guardian.

Parents as good as dead

Experts like Li fear the psychological and developmental consequences on migrant children who are growing up without their parents. She told Caixin that long absences make these children more susceptible to bullying and making risky or dangerous decisions. Self-assessment also indicated that 75 percent of children left behind rated their academic performance to be on the decline, 10 percent higher than all rural children surveyed.

A notable aberration in the survey found that over ten percent had answered that one of their parents had died within the last month - a clear anomaly since China’s overall mortality rate stood at seven deaths per thousand in 2016. Li interprets this as an intentional venting of resentment and frustration on the part of the survey participants.

“This results (on parental death) are not real, but the numbers express the resentment and hate these children harbor toward their parents. The attitude is possibly: ‘you don’t care about me anyways, you might as well be dead.’ This sends a chill to one’s heart because even though you’re alive, in the child’s mind it might not be that way,” Li said.

Editor: Edward White