The purpose of preserving and protecting the family structure is largely to protect the vulnerable: children, the elderly and women (or men in some cases) who sacrifice present and future income to bring up their children and cultivate the ‘family life’ of the home. 

Last week I wrote about the horrifying numbers of elderly people dying alone undiscovered for weeks in Japan due to family structure and community breakdown.  

Another story has emerged out of China about staggering numbers of forgotten rural children.  It is again a story of family breakdown leading to society’s most vulnerable being forsaken – this time as a result of poverty and government imposed people flow rules.  

China was shocked last month by the suicide of four children abandoned by their parents. The children, aged 5 to 13, were found dead after drinking pesticide at their home in Cizhu Village in the city of Bijie on June 9. Villagers and officials said the children had lived alone for years because their father had migrated to find work in another province and their mother left home two years ago to escape the poverty of the village.  

Where were the neighbours or friends? The children went unnoticed because their situation is just not that unusual in rural China.   Around 40 percent of children in the poor province of Guizhou live without their parents.  

Heart wrenchingly, the 13-year-old boy highlighted how much children depend on the family unit working well.  After eating raw corn for years and looking after his younger sisters he left behind a letter that said: Thanks for your good intentions. I know you are good to me, but it is time for me to go. I swore I would not live beyond 15 years old, and death has been my dream for years.

The tragedy has drawn attention to the many more children living alone in rural China, and worldwide, when one or both parents go off to find work in bigger cities or abroad.  ‘Left behind children’ are estimated to total 60 million across China.  An estimated 14 million children have stunted growth.  Numbers have increased by 150 percent in the last five years – that’s equivalent to the entire population of Italy – largely as a result of an increasingly urbanised China.  

Hundreds of millions of Chinese people who used to work on the land now work in factories.  Most only get a visit from their parents once a year during the Chinese New Year holiday, partly because the flow of people is strictly controlled by the government.  Under the Communist government there is a household registration system by which if you are born into a rural village you cannot get urban registration even if you work for decades as a migrant worker so you cannot move your children with you to be educated in the city while you work.  It is true that parents can then provide a rural education for children with their pay that they otherwise might not have been able to afford.  However, a system that does not allow for children to be brought up by a mother and a father is not a society working well.   

The Chinese government argues that increased urbanisation has pulled many people out of poverty.  It is true that there is a rising middle class and a phenomenal increase in the demand for luxury goods in China.  However, the government is often not addressing fundamental problems children are facing as a result. 

Both Japan and China serve as grim reminders of what happens when societal culture or laws do not support family connections and the family unit.  The family unit and marriage have always been recognised and protected by the State for the good of the vulnerable; largely children who have a right to be brought up by their mother and father in a family unit. When countries move away from traditional natural family structures because of poverty, concern with career esteem, unsympathetic legal or political systems, a lack of committment or ‘stickability’, or simply because individuals have come to think first of ‘my happiness’ at the expense of children, who will be watching out for the vulnerable? As this boy writes in his suicide note, “good intentions” may not be enough.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...