AWAY FROM HOME: Children of migrant workers view the skyline from the top of a hill in Yuma Park in Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on August 26, 2013 (HUANG XIAOBANG)
A recent cluster of crimes committed by migrant children, who move to cities from the countryside with their parents, have generated headlines in China, triggering widespread concern and raising the question of what turned the adolescents into villains.
Official statistics show that China has more than 262 million migrant workers—those who have moved from rural areas to cities in search of employment opportunities. Often working long hours as manual laborers, migrant workers are often unable to participate in the education and raising of their children as much as they should. Some migrant children turn to forming gangs and robbery without the guidance of their parents to keep them in school and steer them in the right direction.
A video showing a group of teenagers attacking a young boy was posted online on May 25, quickly going viral and triggering outrage and shock on the Internet. In the nine-minute clip, three teenage boys are shown laughing while elbowing and kicking the boy despite his constant begging. Toward the end of the clip, one perpetrator picks up a rock and smashes the boy in the head, knocking him unconscious.
A day after the video's uploading, one of the attackers, 15-year-old Guo, turned himself in to police, which then led to the other two being tracked down in Beijing's neighboring Hebei Province on the same day. The other two assailants, one aged 15 and the other 17, both of whom are from Gansu Province, also confessed to beating the victim. All three are school dropouts.
The victim, a 14-year-old primary school student, told the police that Guo, who lived close to his home, mistakenly suspected him of tipping off the police about him attacking another boy in April, for which Guo was detained. "I didn't do it [tell the police about Guo]," the boy told newspaper The Beijing News on May 26.
According to a report by China National Radio, similar assaults committed by youngsters, who are usually school dropouts, occur on a daily basis in Naixi Village, Chaoyang District, where the infamous attack took place. Located in Beijing's northern suburb, the village, which has a permanent population of less than 2,300, has become the home to 40,000 to 50,000 migrant workers and their families in recent years. Both the victim and Guo came from migrant workers' families.
Presently, China is in the process of reforming its household registration system, also known as hukou, which divides Chinese citizens into urban and rural residents. The reform is designed to help make basic urban public services more available to migrant workers. As a result of the current situation, some migrant workers are unable to enroll their children in public schools in cities where they reside. Many cities even struggle to provide enough space for all children that do hold a local hukou. Migrant workers often end up either allowing their children to drop out of school or choose to send them to unlicensed private facilities, where the quality of the education is not guaranteed.
On May 27, the Beijing Higher People's Court published a white paper on Beijing's juvenile crime in 2013. The paper, the first of its kind in China, revealed that out of 1,097 cases, 77.4 percent of perpetrators had received little or no education and 65.3 percent of offenders were from outside of Beijing. On the other hand, the paper noted that juvenile victims, especially those who suffered from sexual harassment, were more likely to be the children of migrant workers, though statistics were not published. However, it was noted that the predators are often acquaintances of the victims—such as teachers, neighbors and people from the same hometown.
The white paper went on to explain that investigations revealed that the vast majority of migrant workers work long hours to make ends meet and end up leaving their children at home alone or are unable to pick them up from schools, making these children easy targets for thieves and sexual predators. Similarly, the parents do not have the time to engage themselves in their children's education at school, leading their children to become more likely to skip classes, which in turn makes them more likely to turn to delinquency.
The document also identified juveniles from rural areas who earn a living in Beijing without their parents as being particularly vulnerable of turning to crime.
"As they often lack access to stable employment or accommodation, the likelihood of them turning to crime increases when they encounter difficulties in supporting themselves," said the paper. It also noted that these individuals' usually low level of education, the sudden change of surroundings and their exposure to enormous wealth gaps between themselves and some native Beijingers could be considered factors that put this group at a higher risk of becoming delinquents.