New Migrant Workers, Left Behind Children and China’s Push for Modernisation

Xucun Village, HeShun County, Shanxi Province, China. August 2013

PUBLISHED IN PART IN THE AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 2014

Situated 500km’s south west of Beijing in neighbouring Shanxi Province and nestled in the valley of the Tai Hang Mountain Range along the Qing Zhang River sits the village of Xucun, a small farming community of approximately 1600 people.

Based at the foot of steep overgrown mountain ridges, full of rare flora including herbs that provide both flavors for the local cuisine as well as crucial ingredients in traditional medicine, this land is truly an oasis away from the rubble of the developing country that surrounds it.

Dating back approximately 2000 years, Xucun Village has stood the test of time, remaining predominantly self sufficient due to extensive corn and wheat farming, low cost of living and a basic and ancient way of life.

In Xucun, where a local farmer’s wage will often be no more than USD$2000.00 per annum, it has always been very much about the simple things, but as China moves rapidly into the future, Industrialisation and Modernisation are beginning to impact this once settled community.

As Shanxi province grows to become one of China’s richest coal producing regions and the government begins to realise the value beneath the surface, the pressures of this change are beginning to take effect.

The only access to Xucun has forever been on one long crumbling, often flooded dirt road, isolating it from the ‘greater’ community. Now, a new highway is being constructed to run through the valley and provide a much needed link for the booming mining industry’s trucks and heavy equipment. What change and in what way this new connection will bring to the village is still unknown.

In extreme cases in neighbouring villages, citizens have been relocated to nearby newly constructed high rise sub-cities, and ‘encouraged’ to step into the modern world as their villages are bulldozed to make way for coal mines.

Whilst this is the worst case scenario, a major problem that is arising in Xucun and other similar communities throughout the country, is that as local and traditional work dries up and the cost of living increases, the migration of capable men and woman to work the mines in distant rural areas as well as in other industries in far away cities is rapidly increasing.

It can be dangerous, relentless and low paying work. Sometimes it involves both mother and father leaving their child with relatives for up to 3 months at a time while they try to earn enough to meet the demands of a changing economy and to support the increasing cost of their child’s education into the future.

In other cases it may just be a mother and child left to live together while the father works far away to provide income for the family.

Not only is this causing obvious stress to the parents and children but it is also effecting the grandparents and relatives who are having to raise a child at an elderly age. While there is evidently a lot of love and care within these new family dynamics, there is also now a lot of pressure.

This is a recent problem that has taken shape over the last decade and the psychological effect that it will have on these ‘Left Behind Children’ in the future, some as young as 5, is not yet clear.

Others families are going through different struggles. Some, after committing to relocate their whole families to sub-cities so that they can remain together, have gone on to lose their jobs while being locked into rental contracts in high cost ‘city style’ apartments, placing incredible stress on relationships.

As the Chinese government strives to grow their Gross Domestic Profit and maintain their rise as a world powerhouse, much of the population in these rural areas are being left behind or otherwise pushed forward but seemingly not ready or unable to keep up.

The plight of the people of Xucun seems to be at a significant cross road as the modern and industrial worlds have crept up on them and are knocking on their village door.

This project was produced with the assistance of the Australia China Arts Foundation’s ‘Arts Can Do’ residency program.