Understanding migrant labor, education, and parent-child dynamics in China

An Interview with Dr. Rachel Murphy

Dr. Rachel Murphy is a fellow at St. Anthony’s College at the University of Oxford, where she also serves as the Research Director at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and Professor of Chinese Development and Society. Dr. Murphy is the author of The Children of China’s Great Migration (Cambridge University Press, 2020), which was released in a new paperback edition in 2022, and How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China (Cambridge University Press, 2002). In addition to previously serving on the editorial board of The China Quarterly, she also serves as President of the British Association for Chinese Studies and on the editorial board of Modern China.

This interview was conducted by Sarah Stahlman, an intern with the Carter Center’s China Focus. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

In my view, your research is unique because you employ a child-centered lens to investigate the well-being of migrant workers’ children in China. Could you briefly explain why you employ this lens? What lessons does it offer about the Chinese economy that are overlooked by mainstream frameworks?

There’s a huge amount of research on migration that generally focuses on adults. Even when the literature, especially quantitative studies, look at children, the respondents are usually caregivers or teachers talking about the children or evaluating the children in some way, so children’s voices are really missing. Interviewing children and listening to children provides a unique vantage point on processes like migration, urbanization, and economic restructuring because we get to see the impacts, costs, and identities that are inculcated in this process. Focusing on children also brings to the fore the very constrained nature of children’s agency. So much is done without consulting children, including things like the hukou household registration policy, and different aspects of labor conditions in China that force families to live apart from each other.

But then, within the family, parents make this momentous decision for one or both of them to migrate and leave the children behind without ever consulting them, so children will talk about feeling unable to speak and feeling incredibly sad as they watch their parents leave. Parents’ migration is done on behalf of the children for their education, but they’re never consulted. By listening to children’s voices, we see that they’re profoundly impacted by their family’s responses to wider changes associated with policy and economic restructuring. Through listening to them and contextualizing their voices, we see that even as they exercise agency, this is very much affected by how adults and their socialization impact their aspirations, and by the ways that adults convey messages and expectations like to work hard and to repay the sacrifice of their parents. All of this teaches children that the happiness of other significant people in their lives really depends on the children.

So, they are given scope for responding to the situation in which they’re in and shaping the family relationships, but in very constrained ways. I think all of this comes out through listening to children’s voices.

The Children of China’s Great Migration studies China’s “left-behind children,” a phenomenon caused by children being left in the countryside when one or more of their parents migrates to a city to find work. Some of the children you studied endured incredibly harsh upbringings but went on to value school and score highly on exams – such as Zhongyang, a boy whose parents both work in factories in a different city – while other children did not overcome their upbringings through academic achievement. Why did you investigate test scores in particular to study the effects of internal migration on left-behind children? Are there other ways to study or quantify a child’s well-being?

I focused on test scores because they’re so central to evaluating children’s worth in China with regards to their potential, their promise, their attributes, and whether they’re hard working or not. Of course, they can be tremendously hard working and still not do well at school because they haven’t had the initial nurturing and because they just find the material doesn’t go into their head, but the exam scores are just so pivotal to assessing all aspects of the worth of children. And this happens from a very young age. I saw many times, even though the Chinese Ministry of Education prohibits the practice of ranking children in the class or the year group, they all still knew how they ranked, even in primary school. They would say, “I’m 16th in my class” or “I’m 23rd in my class,” and there would be some who’d say, “if I fall below number six, my dad will hit me.” Even in the classroom, the seating is according to the latest test scores.

The regional bureaus of education rank schools by the students test scores, and this affects the principal’s ranking and promotions, and the teachers are then evaluated by the principals, so the teachers then evaluate the students. This pressure gets pushed downwards directly onto the heads of children. This practice resonates with the parents and family’s own aspirations for their children to get ahead because the possibilities for escaping manual work are so limited that it involves taking the gaokao (university entrance exam). So, everything is determined by test scores and the gaokao is referred to as a ‘narrow plank of wood’ that only a few people can cross over, though many people want to cross over. It looms large in people’s lives.

The other thing I think a focus on exam scores highlights is that children’s study is work; it’s labor that generates value that gets quantified and then is convertible into capital in itself that is convertible into other possibilities for progressing and getting resources. So, the whole narrative within the Chinese family, when parents participate in migration, or even if they don’t participate in migration, but it plays out in particular ways when they do, is that the parents are working hard to earn money for the children’s education. A good filial child needs to reciprocate this sacrifice by the parents through meaningful effort of their own. Focusing on exam scores highlights that these children are also working or expending effort that comes with very heavy emotional undertones because it indicates if they are being a good child and fulfilling relational obligations.

I think that this way of assessing individuals is detrimental to children’s wellbeing, and it would be good if there was far more plurality in ideas about what constitutes a successful and meaningful life, and if there were more routes to acquiring knowledge that could be validated. We might now have a start of a shift towards this, just very slightly through the ‘lying flat movement’ and people indicating that they want to opt out. But in reality, the ways for richer people and poorer people to opt out are very different. If you are from the urban middle class, you can perhaps opt out by pursuing an alternative lifestyle, or going to international schools, and so on. But if you are from a poor rural family, if you opt to lay flat, it’s because you have no other way of exiting.

By opting out, do you mean not taking these tests and refusing this rigorous academic life?

What I mean is, not working hard and just accepting they won’t necessarily achieve a better life through education. Children, when they’re in primary school, feel that these possibilities for upwards mobility through education lie before them, but this mobility is difficult to realize, if they come from families with limited possibilities to read to them from a young age and are educated in schooling systems that use quite dull teaching methods and don’t really offer an enriched curriculum. Even though the test score system gives the illusion of fairness, rural children also face discrimination in university entrance and possibilities for progression, and there are structural inequalities that advantage urban peoples.

When many students get to the age of 14 or 15, they start to realize that they’re not going to fulfill these aspirations, and these promises of a better future aren’t necessarily going to come true. So, then they start to talk about themselves as being without promise, of being useless, of being people whose heads the book material won’t go into. Of course, there’s always a minority who, for whatever reason, are able to progress and go to an academic track senior high school, and even make it to a decent university, but even many of those from rural backgrounds who make it to university only make it to the second and third tier universities from which there is less access to secure jobs with decent pay.

There are various shifts underway and there are counter narratives, especially within rural areas, to say “maybe studying is useless,” and that’s not because people don’t value education, it’s because they see the experience of putting lots of time and investment of resources to get a child to a third tier, poor quality college, and still miss out on the desired outcomes in terms of that child’s life chances.

It seems like there would be self-fulfilling prophecy if these students begin to tell themselves that they’re people who can’t get information to stick in their brain, and then they go to the classroom and they’re always seated in the desks for the worst students, so why would they believe that they can study and achieve more? It definitely seems like it’s going to spiral from there.

I think you’re right. A long time ago, I read a paper by Aihwa Ong on the interaction between being made and self-making, the labels that others put on you, and then what you internalize. Maybe this is an example of that, that these children have labels put on them through the significance accorded to their test scores, and it’s so physically embodied if you were a child seated in the back row in the corner.

While reading your book, I noticed that it seems these migrant worker parents value two things most highly: the success of their children in school and their children’s relationship with their grandparents. However, many of these parents must choose to either send their children to live at boarding schools, where the caregivers (teachers) are often more educated, or send them to live with their grandparents, where the caregivers are less educated but maintain familial ties, making it impossible for both of these values to be fulfilled. How do parents grapple with that choice?

Most parents had junior high school education, which is about nine years of schooling, and many had less than that, and some had more than that. At the same time, society has been evolving with the development of technologies and new, higher-end aspects of the service economy, and so people increasingly see that in today’s society, in order to have a good job, you need good education, which these parents don’t have. So, they think that as ‘low quality’ individuals, the best they can do for their children’s education is to migrate and earn money to invest in their education, rather than staying with their children themselves to raise them.

But how this plays out with respect to boarding schools really varies a lot by region. In some provinces and counties, there has been a big push by the local state to create boarding schools in rural areas. The initial impetus for this was because of falling numbers of children in village schools due to strict birth planning policies. But if you’re closing down village primary schools, then you’re building consolidated primary schools in townships which creates distance between the village and the township. As a result, townships build state-subsidized boarding facilities that policymakers can also use as a second home for left-behind children. Although the conditions aren’t fabulous, parents think, “Gosh, if I take my child with me to the city, I’m going to have to pay lots of money. If they stay in the countryside, they can live and eat at school during the week.” This will reduce the burden of work on aging grandparents, and the children will be under the care of teachers who will discipline them and make them do their homework in the evening revision sessions, which are supervised, whereas if they’re just at home with grandparents, they’ll watch television all the time.

In some areas, they retained a lot of the village schools and there wasn’t a big investment by the state in state-provided boarding facilities. So, there, the logic was a bit different, and in some of these areas, the mothers would stay at home. When you ask them why, they say, “Because at lunchtime, there’s no one to provide lunch for my child.” So, the local school system interacted with families’ desires to earn money for their children’s education and give them access to the different kinds of supervision they need to impact their education.

In one county I went to, there had been the start of private boarding schools, which were renowned for being very strict, and actually generated some plausible progression into higher education. So, in that area, you had families not just saying, “Oh, we want to migrate and it’s going to be convenient because we can leave the children in the boarding school.” Instead, they were saying, “We need to migrate to earn the money to be able to send the children to these boarding schools where they can get a better education.” So, how this tension between what’s offered by the boarding school and then also wanting to keep emotional, familial connections with the child plays out really differs depending on aspects of the local schooling situation.

But, in general, parents do not see huge value in leaving children with grandparents. It was seen as more of a convenience and the grandparents, in looking after children, were enabling the parents to earn money, but it wasn’t ever seen that, “Oh, it’s good to leave the children with the grandparents because then they’ll get more nurturing.” It was more like, “Okay, at least if the grandparents provide care, we can earn money for the child.” Even the reverse thinking was present, “My mother is old and she’s by herself, my granddaughter can keep her company.” So, how this played out really varied by region and family.

So it seemed like it’s more of an economic decision than a familial one, then.

Well, the familial value is always there, and the economic decision is emphasized for familial reasons. It’s about trying to make sure the child has a good life, and doesn’t endure the hardship that the parents endured, and has the best possible chance in life so they can never blame the parents and say they didn’t try for them. So, the emotional aspect is there, and parents think that in working to support their children’s education, that is how they are fulfilling their parental obligations to their children. That’s not to say they don’t miss their children, and grandparents would say, “When the kids are at school Monday to Friday, I really miss them. They’re very tiring to have around, but I like it when they come back on the weekends.” But, equally, others would say, “When they come back on the weekends, I don’t like it because I’m so busy. I don’t have a breath for myself.” So, I think the economic and the emotional are so intertwined, they cannot be separated. 

It definitely seems that way. I’m glad you also brought up your point about how there were some mothers who would purposely stay behind, because someone had to be able to prepare lunch for their kids when they came home from school. Beyond student achievement and parent-child relationships, much of your book discusses the differences in expectations between men and women, either through the children of migrant workers or the parents themselves. You point out how many families continue to value sons more than daughters. Can you briefly explain why this is the case, and whether this additional value added results in better educational or career outcomes for males over females?

Lots of people say that Chinese parents love their sons and daughters equally, but they value the sons more because the sons carry on the family line. The other thing is that Chinese parents, especially in the countryside, invest so much more financially in their sons than daughters because of the patrilineal family system. So, if you have a daughter, your obligation is to support her through to the end of her education, but if you have a son, you have to support his education and then also work to accumulate money to help him buy a house so he can marry and then accumulate money to help look after, hopefully, a grandson. The overall value of resources invested in a son is therefore so much greater because he continues the family line and because your parental obligations to him are ongoing.

However, what is very interesting and what really came out in the research is that parents will invest equally in the education of boys or girls. They will invest in whoever has promise. People would say things like, “better to have a tiger of a daughter than several mice as sons.” I also interviewed some girls who, if they had no brothers and their parents were out working, might hear a grandparent say something very hurtful like, “Oh, our family is cursed because there’s only a granddaughter and, moreover, she’s a granddaughter who can’t study.” But people would talk about different families and if someone’s family had a daughter who could study. So, it is a very contradictory picture that parents would support and invest resources in whoever could study, regardless of the gender of the child.

However, they would often want different jobs for sons and daughters or have different ideas about their futures, which would, of course, impact children’s own views. There’d be a hope, for example, that sons would become officials, engineers, entrepreneurs, or become a big boss. For daughters, parents largely hoped that they would get something stable in a nearby city so they wouldn’t be too far away or be too tired, like a teacher or an accountant. Gender had an impact, but girls were often socialized to be close to their parents, and so, girls would often do very well at school in comparison to boys.

Both girls and boys were challenged by coming from a rural background where they face structural disadvantages, so the impact of gender is very mixed. The other thing is that increasingly, because of the possibilities of participating in labor markets after marriage, there are many examples of girls who migrate, earn money, and then support or give money to their own parents even after they’re married. Even though this can be an empowerment for women, it’s also a double burden because they also have to contribute to their in-laws’ family. But all of these things change perceptions of daughters, especially as parents usually might just have one daughter or even just one child, so they’re valuable and precious to their parents. And in fact, in some families, parents were trying to accumulate some money so that they might even be able to help their daughter buy an apartment in time or contribute to that, even though they had no obligation by custom, which is, I think, quite a new development.

When you mentioned that parents may expect or hope that their daughters will have stable jobs, but hope that their sons may achieve more lofty ambitions, it reminded me of your discussion that parents are more likely to take risks for their son’s educations, but are less likely to take risks like that for their daughters. Do I have that right?

So, in that, I’m citing other scholars’ research. There’s one paper that finds that, especially in regions with high sex ratio imbalances and more competition for brides, the fathers are more likely to be engaged in high risk occupations that earn more money, like construction, mining, or working with chemicals, and are likely to work longer hours. That is because of the huge financial burden that having a son constitutes in a squeezed marriage market where there’s a shortage of eligible brides and men need a lot of economic resources in order to be an eligible groom.

Ideally, if they’ve got a good education and an apartment in a city or money to buy one, then they will have a chance of getting married. When I did my field work in China’s rural areas in the 1990s, the people were migrating in order to earn enough money to build a house in the village, but that’s gone now. Now they are migrating to try to give their sons a secure foothold in an urban area and establish themselves so that they will be able to ensure that they don’t end up bachelors for life.

In your book, you state that while men may make up a slightly higher percentage of rural migrants in urban areas, women make up a much higher percentage than is typically thought. Existing in a space others believe you do not exist in is a common phenomenon for working women around the world. How might the experience of female migrant workers differ from those of male, especially considering this preconceived notion that women do not (or should not) migrate to cities?

This is really interesting. In the 20s age bracket, when people aren’t married, there’s roughly equal male and female out migration, it’s sort of the rite of passage once you finish your education to migrate. But the overall population of rural migrants in urban areas is about one third female, two thirds male. That’s because of the strong pressure on many women to return to the rural areas to undertake caring duties after they’ve married or had a baby. So women have some possibilities in urban areas to realize their value by earning their own money, by consuming, by perhaps socializing a little bit, but it’s still very constrained by the precarity of their lives and their long working hours, and usually women are given lower wages than men.

But there’s always this expectation that they’re going to have to get married, or if they are married, that they’re going to have to go back at some point to their husband’s village, whereas for men, after they get married or have children, they’ll often continue to stay in the cities. I mean, increasingly some women do this as well. So, migration gives some space, but I think it’s associated very much with a period in their life after high school where they get to go out, but they know that this period is a limited one.

Increasingly, I think, women aren’t wanting to return to rural areas and are wanting to set up in smaller cities or county seats, because that is a more possible place to start to build an off-farm life because these women don’t actually go back to farming, or don’t want to go back to farming, and many of them have never farmed. So, it is a contradiction because migration offers some space for increased freedom, but it is within the context of economic precarity and an overwhelming expectation that they will meet family obligations for caregiving. Also, the possibilities for women to divorce are very limited. So, whatever freedom migration might bestow is very constrained.

So, if it’s expected that women will return to rural areas after they’re married, then is it likely that the older women who are migrant workers are more likely to have either never been married or widowed, since they don’t have the same attachments to the countryside?

I hate to say anything categorically. I mean, there are a lot of married women with children who stay in the cities as well. But I think among the single population of migrants, the gender balance is roughly equal, but for the population of migrants overall, the fact that about two thirds of migrants are men speaks to the fact that there continues to be pressure on women to return for marriage and motherhood duties, but by no means, all of them return.That seems to have been a fairly constant picture over at least the last decade, if not longer.

You write about the parenting ideal of “stern father, nurturing mother,” and that women are made to feel guilty about their decision to migrate to cities. Even some of the young children you interviewed echoed this societal judgment of mothers, focusing on their mother’s absence more than their father’s and blaming hardships in their life on this. Are the fathers who migrate to cities made to feel the same sense of guilt for failing to provide their traditional role of the disciplinarian? 

That plays out, again, differently in different families. I think the primary requirement of fathers is to be a good breadwinner, and that if they fulfill that obligation and are seen to be trying their best in that area, deficiencies elsewhere are overlooked. But some men would try to maintain the disciplinarian role at a distance, so they would admonish their children on the telephone, for example, or they would discipline them for low grades when they saw the children on return visits, which would be quite alienating. There were also many migrant men who longed for much closer emotional ties and interaction with their children, and some kids talked about how when their father returned home, he would put extra food on their plate and things like that.

So, it is quite mixed. But primarily it’s felt that the parenting roles were very strongly gendered, and there wasn’t too much shift to them. In urban areas, there is a big shift towards the nurturing father and programs on television like Father, Where Are We Going Now? where the kids hang out and do activities with their dad. That model of fatherhood is not really so much in the rural areas, so the men would be focused on breadwinning, but kids would also talk about how sometimes their fathers would play with them, how much they missed their father, how their dads could make them laugh, and how when their dads were away, there was laughter missing from the house. So, again, it’s very hard to generalize, but I think there was greater acceptance of father’s absence because it was understood that he needed to earn money.

Something I really picked up on in the book was that fathers who migrate definitely seemed to get more patience from their children. There’s one part where you mentioned that mothers urged their children to be lenient and patient with their working fathers, but it seemed like mothers weren’t getting the same second chance from their kids, and fathers weren’t encouraging their children to be lenient and patient with their mother who was working in a city.

I’d say that’s true. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Towards the end of the book, you write that in terms of health, happiness, and displays of emotion, children whose mothers work in the city but fathers stay with them actually fare worse than children with both parents in the city. Can you elaborate on this and why this may be?

I think there’s a mix of reasons. One reason is the patrilineal family system, the patriarchy, and the inflexibility of gender roles that comes with that. So, if a wife were to migrate alone and earn money, it would be very insulting to her husband. He would be derided for not financially supporting the family and he would lose some face. This is different from countries in Southeast Asia, like the Philippines or Vietnam, where greater flexibility in gender models and longer established streams of female migration over long periods of time may have caused gender norms to become more flexible.

But in the context of interior provinces in China, if a woman were to migrate alone, it would signal inherent preexisting family vulnerability. So, that could either be medical debts or the illness or disability of the husband, or just that it was a really unhappy marriage, and then it’s difficult for women to legally divorce, and the social sanction is very strong. Usually it was those two situations where the mothers would migrate alone, and then the mother’s absence might add further difficulties to the family, given that there’s so many songs and programs and narratives in Chinese culture about how pitiful children are when their mothers aren’t by their side. Children would feel that they know that their family arrangement is somewhat of an anomaly and that their mothers aren’t with them.

It was interesting how in those families, fathers would, to some extent, take on some of the gap, such as tucking their child into bed. There were ways in which perhaps maternal absence created more space for fathers to take on more flexible parenting roles, but often also the grandmothers filled the maternal care gap. So, the husband’s mothers would also be at home taking on a lot of the domestic chores. I think that the difficulties for children in families where the mothers migrated alone often reflected some preexisting problems within the family.

More of a correlation rather than a causation, then?

It’s probably a bit of both.

What can the study of left-behind children tell us about the future of China’s economy? How will evolving gender roles contribute to China’s evolving economy?   

I think looking at left-behind children really reveals the emotional costs of China’s economic model, and it also reveals a lot of the emotional labor that children undertake within their families to try and help keep things together. It’s quite difficult to address the impact of this for China’s future economy without either pathologizing or homogenizing left-behind children because it plays out differently in different families. But the fact is that many (but not all) left-behind children experience big reductions in the direct parental or adult care and nurturing that’s available to them. This is a dramatic shift within a very short period of time in child raising. In the year 2000, less than 10% of children were left-behind, whereas throughout the 2010s, it’s still the case that it’s close to 70 million children across China who are left-behind in both rural and urban areas, if we count it as children 18 and under with one or both parents out.

Increasingly, the left-behind children phenomenon is becoming an urban phenomenon as well. The proportion who are left-behind within rural areas is declining, and the proportion left-behind within urban areas is increasing, both through rezoning and recategorizing rural areas as urban, but also shifting to county seats and small cities and moving boarding schools to county seats and small cities. It is a huge change from growing up in the village with your parents.

So, what are the impacts of this? This is a whole generation that’s been raised in a new way, and these people are now becoming the new generation of migrant laborers in the cities, but they’ve been raised with the promise of a better future and possibilities for educational progression if they just make these sacrifices of parental absence and hard work, but then many of them see by their teens that often these promises aren’t coming to fruition.

Some quantitative research finds that among the new generation of migrant laborers, the wages of rural migrants in the cities who grew up as left-behind children have lower wages than rural migrants in the cities who grew up with both their parents, and that’s not just because they received a smaller amount of education. The authors of that study hypothesize that it’s also due to the impact of parental absence and the circumstances of their childhood on their emotional intelligence, wellbeing, resilience, and all of those kinds of things.

So, we’re having new class structures emerging within urban areas and within urban settlements of different sizes. What will these people seek to mitigate for past deficiencies? What kind of comforts will they seek for themselves through consumption and social practices? Will their emotional bonds with family be strengthened or attenuated? Will they provide care for the parents who left them behind given that they may feel resentment towards them? What’s going to happen to the caregiving given that the Chinese welfare system is so familiarly orientated? Within the people I interviewed, once they got to the late teens, a number of them said they would never leave their own children behind because they knew of the intense pain, whereas other researchers have found that this generation is very happy to leave their own children behind because it just feels the norm.

I think that there’s many aspects of having over 60 million children raised in this new way entering early adulthood, and we actually don’t know how this is going to pan out. I think it’s going to affect urbanization patterns, aspirations, class structure, class identity, patterns of caregiving, and economic and emotional support between the generations. I think these are all really valuable topics for future research.

With respect to gender roles, we know that traditional gender roles are being strengthened under Xi Jinping. I think this coincides only with particular gendered ideas of nationhood and nation building, but also with this imperative to encourage women to have more children.

It’s always been the case in rural areas that women would be the caregivers, so I think the kind of traditional expectations that women provide care will continue. In 2016, the State Council called on parents and implicitly on women to consider returning home to look after their children because there were successive scandals and tragedies involving left-behind children that made the government look bad. So, I think that the associations and expectations that women will be caregivers, especially women of rural origins, is likely to continue, but that’s also going to coexist easily with shifts to institutionalized caregiving through, for example, boarding schools.

How these gender roles evolve and how they impact the economy is going to vary depending on location and social class. But I think we’ve continued to see feminized caregiving, especially amongst older women, really providing a very invisible but substantially important supplement to the Chinese economy. For a long time, that’s what underpinned China’s very cheap labor supply because the municipal authorities and employers didn’t need to provide care for children and other family members, so whenever care needs arose, people would be sent back to the countryside. But as China’s economy upskills and the requirements of labor change, maybe that will also change.

I think there’s a lot to watch. We probably will see a big expansion of the informal economy where a lot of former left-behind children or new migrants are going to work and, probably, I think we’ll see women increasingly taking on jobs where they balance their caring duties with work, especially through outputting in the home or digitization. But a big expansion of state support in the early childcare years, like kindergarten, is probably needed if more women are going to formally be able to work outside the home.

Thank you so much. That was the last of my questions, so thank you so much for sitting down and speaking with me.

Thank you very much, indeed.