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Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 10 July 2013

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

A young woman and her baby at a local mobile phone shop

Doing fieldwork always means you need to understand the local people before you look into anything particular. In which vein, most of my time so far has been contributed to knowing people and the local social life which provide essential context for the local social media usage. Here, in this article I’d like to talk about something quite unexpected: kids.

My field site is a small factory town in southeast China where Chinese rural migrants account for two thirds of the local residents. I had the impression that on the high street of my field site, the amount of babies and kids I have seen during the three months is more than the total I have seen during the three years when I was in the UK. It is not a joke; here it is not difficult to find a migrant family with five to seven children, which made me very confused at the first beginning given the well-known Chinese ‘one- child’ policy.

Now let me explain it a bit.The ‘one-child’ policy used to be conducted extremely strictly in China. A typical Chinese word “tou sheng” (give birth secretly) suggests the most popular folk strategy toward the tough policy.

“Years ago, they [local officials] would chase you to the end of the earth if they knew you have a baby secretly in other places, but now nobody bothers to catch people who ‘tou sheng’ outside [their home place].” one of my informants who has three kids told me how things have changed nowadays.

As a result, the rural migrant people seemed to have the “privilege” to have as many kids as they want during their stay at “other places” – they are “floating” in other places with their kids.  The way rural migrant lead their lives seemed to have already gave me the answers for the question “why do people want so many children?” – That is to survive on numbers.

“My mum believes that being a human being is to make human beings. The more the better and as many as possible.”  A man in his 30s told me.

What a philosophy of life. Clear, and strong, and each one can make a go for it. Among my rural migrant people, nobody has ever cared about which kindergarten, primary school, or middle school their children go to. They cared about how many children they have and others have. Many kids will be sent to factories to earn money by their parents when they finish middle school (15-16 years old). It is illegal to employ child labor for factory owners; however they have chosen to turn a blind eye to child labor given that all the kids have fake identification cards showing that they already are 18 years old. Education here is not something for freedom or a better life, but something to prepare potential labor that can read for factories. I once asked people how they can afford to bring up so many kids.

“’To be honest, if you are rich, you bring up kids in a rich way, if you are poor, and then bring up kids in a poor way. The kids of rich guys will learn how to play piano; our kids only need to know how to survive.” A man said.

I knew he meant it.

Here, in this small industrial town, most people work hard and treat each other for survival. There is no tourism agency, no gym, no cinema, and no garden.  Life is a lasting battle for survival, from this generation to the next. It is as grandeur as an epic, however as humble as weeds. The ancient wisdom of the nature has told people how to apply numerical advantage to confront with high mortality and high failure rates.

One day, I was sitting in the mobile phone shop, watching people. A very young lady came to top up her mobile phone. She was pretty, in a pink pullover, carrying her baby on her back. From the cloth baby carrier with colorful embroidery I could immediately tell that she must have come from the Guizhou province. She gave me a 20 RMB (2 pounds) banknote  and I thought she wanted to top up 20 RMB, which is very reasonable since the average cost of mobile phone among migrant people is 100- 200 RMB (10 pounds- 20 pounds). But she told me she only wanted to top up 10 RMB. When I was thinking why she only topped up 10 RMB, a delicate tiny little hand was reaching out from the baby carrier – it is just the most beautiful scene I have ever seen in my field site (see photo). Out of sudden I became very emotional, especially when I overheard the first phone call she made when she left shop was to her friend, saying that she had run out of money, and the baby was sick.

Until now I still felt guilty that I didn’t run out to catch up her and give her some money. Or, should I?  Here, everybody needs help. However, the thing made me sadder was the baby’s future. Where did all the kids come from? And where will they go? I may have known the answers, but I really hope it was not the truth.