It's tempting to say that child labour in China is an outdated issue, at least when you look at the share of the population affected by the problem.
Compared to other countries, it isn't nearly as widespread in China. Still it highlights the consequences of unregulated development in the race to bring costs down, as a response to consumer demand for ever cheaper products. In other words, we all share a part of responsibility in this. Today, the bigger issue lies with the exploitation of workers in China, both adults and young adults (16-20 year olds) as well as the growing nightmare of sexual labour.
About 15 years ago, China achieved its goal of universal primary education and thus managed to wipe out most of child labour occurring in the country - at least up to a certain age. The recent recrudescence in forced labour is hard to measure because it's largely hidden away in sweatshops and factories owned by large corporations.
The new threat to children in the Middle Kingdom is that of kidnapping: an ever increasing number of children are disappearing every day and forced into labour, including prostitution. This has a lot more to do with child trafficking and corruption, than the common problem of not being willing or aware of the benefits of sending your child to school.
Another factor that contributes to child poverty is the situation of migrant workers. Hundreds of millions of them leave the countryside every year to find work in the city and often have to leave their children behind. Many of them now also leave their rural homes straight after school and engage in strenuous labour (assembly line, construction sector) that will scar their body for life because of their young age, not to mention work-related hazards (lack of proper protection, excessive working hours). Within only a few years, many of these kids start suffering from conditions that usually affect people over 60-70 years old.
A good way to understand the evolution of child labour in China is to compare it to its neighbour, India. In the mid-20th century, both countries had a similar problem: too few of their children were attending primary school. Where the Chinese state has been a lot more efficient was in the implementation of a policy promoting universal primary education.
Of course India did have a similar goal, but the Chinese policy was a lot more effective and straightforward. This shows the impact a strong political will coupled with well-defined goals can have, as opposed to governments who often delay the implementation of serious reforms due to playing politics (trying to please everyone, including the richer classes in the case of India). Not to entirely dismiss the Indian government at the time, it is clear that engaging in profound reforms requires a tremendous amount of commitment, work and willpower to change a society, but clearly they weren't as committed to changing the situation.
The Chinese ruling class was indeed obsessed with transforming the society, just like any other communist state, to the point of eventually harming its own people. They obviously relied heavily on propaganda to win over the masses and easily setting up new schools everywhere in the country - a great way to indoctrinate the youth. This proved a positive change in the long run, when progressive economic liberalization was introduced in 1979 and the Chinese population had to be taught new skills.
A common cultural aspect of China, Japan and Korea is that they all share a culture of education, probably one of the oldest in the world. Education has long been praised and valued in these countries. It has always been the flagship of social ascension, of improving one's life and social status.
This also explains why parents in the 1950s were already so keen to send their children to school as soon as the opportunity arose. There was no need to explain them why they should educate their kids, as it’s often been the case in many other developing countries. The millennial education system in China has always been the safest and most popular way to become rich and improve one family's social status.
Finally, the fact that the Chinese state was providing jobs and food for everyone (set aside the years of famine!) meant that the work of the parents alone was enough to feed their family. Hence the children could go to school, instead of having to help make ends meet. The best way to end the problem is indeed to make sure that the parents are earning enough to feed every mouth under their roof. Otherwise there’s no point in building schools, since the kids will most likely stay at home to help make ends meet.
As the first generation of children born under the Chinese Communist Party was largely educated up to primary school level, the long-term impact of this simple change was colossal for the economic development of China and the decline of child labour. Scores of studies dating back from the 1960s – to begin with the famous Coleman Report in 1966 - have shown that the more educated the parents are, the better their kids perform at school. The reasons for this are diverse and vary for each country but overall you can imagine that if parents understand the potential of education, they are much more likely to push their children to further their studies.
Better yet, when it comes to children’s performance the education of the parents appears to be even more important than the quality of schools and teachers. In particular, the level of education of the mother often plays an even bigger role than that of the father, as revealed by a recent study. And communism, with all its disastrous effects, has at least brought better gender equality in China very early on and opened primary schools to girls.
Child labour doesn't just ruin the childhood of millions, it takes away their chance to ever go to school at a key moment of their life. And with more than half of working children involved in hazardous work that will impair their physical and/or mental development for life, too few of them ever join a school later on.
Working excessively long hours, operating machinery built for adults, bonded labour (or debt bondage), prostitution, sexual harassment and malnutrition are as many plagues to millions of children. Too few studies are actually investigating what is happening on the ground to help us understand the face of modern-day slavery in China and its mechanisms. This is the sort of research we need to better understand what’s going on in the high-tech factories producing goods for Samsung, Apple, HTC and other giant electronic companies, who aren’t always aware of working conditions. (Do they really want to know?)
Recent research has shown that a side-effect of globalisation is the increase in demand for child labour, through the fast-paced growth of an export industry that requires millions of workers at the lowest price. In a country like China, poor children and young adults from rural areas are available by the hundreds of millions… a very tempting source of cheap labour. The economic forces behind this phenomenon explain why so many child traffickers still manage to avoid government control.
However, if well-managed, a transition to an open economy can also support its poorer workers and increase their minimum wage. It's the perfect time to invest in the nation's children and break the vicious cycle that feeds on extremely cheap labour. The government should make it easy for rural adult workers to be seamlessly integrated into cities – thereby making the internal visa policy (known as "hukou") more flexible - or else employers will turn to the black market which involves underage kids. Putting an emphasis on foreign investments in modern industries, which require skilled labour and therefore adults, has also been one of the most effective ways to reduce child trafficking.
On the other hand, the government's attempt to financially help children engaged in illegal labour has had negative effects. As the allowance was set too low, it wasn't enough for them to leave their jobs and instead ended up being paid less by their employers. Indeed, to these unscrupulous people, the children were already receiving government money, so they didn't need the extra cash as much, did they?
The opening of the country’s borders to international trade has been a long transition and, compared to other countries, its impact on on child labour was rather limited thanks to that. Whether this is a success will be examined in the profound moral, social and economic changes. This is a process that takes time, however we're already witnessing the rise of what Chinese citizens dub the "moral corruption of the society" - as they are being officially encouraged to pursue material gain and to “become rich”. It's been the new official government mantra and the new pillar of the society for the past 20 years. But even the Communist Parti starts to realise the impact that this lack of moral and ethical values has on its people.
There is of course nothing wrong with wanting to live comfortably but for some people, "getting rich" has become their life's sole purpose, to achieve by all means necessary. This explains the development of a chaotic black market in China, a much more difficult environment to monitor and regulate. It's only since the new government came into power in November 2012 that it has recognised the importance of fighting the inequalities that cripple its society.
In a sense, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is directly responsible because it only draws its legitimacy from the promise of economic prosperity.
Since it’s no longer a communist economy, the Party has indeed replaced all previous socialist values by those of nationalism (taking pride in China's growing power) and GDP growth - the idea that everyone would be able to get rich.
When getting rich is the national moral compass officially upheld, you can understand the influence it has on the people. If leaders are to show the example, they're telling Chinese citizens to seek superficial and material gains more than anything else.
While this doesn't necessarily have an absolute impact on everyone - tradition is still a central part of most Chinese lives - it does explain to some extent the extreme behaviour of those who engage ruthlessly in child trafficking. It’s easy money, and both supply (poor rural kids) and demand (factories, rich adults) are abundant. If you'd like to know more, read this report by Human Rights Watch on the abuse of a government education program that fuelled child labour in China - as well as our other article on poverty in China.