Scott Rozelle Interview: The Frost Boy

Scott Rozelle holds the Helen Farnsworth Endowed Professorship at Stanford University and is Senior Fellow and Professor in the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies. Dr. Rozelle's research focuses on the economics of poverty—with an emphasis on the economics of education and health. Dr. Rozelle is the co-director of the Rural Education Action Project (REAP) and is an adjunct professor in 8 Chinese universities. In 2008, Dr. Rozelle was awarded the Friendship Award—the highest honor that can be endowed on a foreign citizen—by Premiere Wen Jiabao.

The viral photo of the “frost boy” drew attention to the “left-behind” children of rural China. Can you please explain who the “left-behind” children are and why they are “left-behind”?

Left behind children are a product of the hukou system, a system of rural and urban residency. A hukou is treated as a passport. China actually has two countries: the urban China and the rural China. Rural people have rural passports and city people have city passports. If you have a rural passport, then you cannot use any of the city’s social services, which are actually much better than rural services. Everyone would want to use them if they could. Rural schools and rural doctors are much worse than urban schools and doctors. What often happens is that a family has a child and the parents have jobs in the city. Because the child cannot attend school in the city, the child has to be left at home in the countryside, typically with the paternal grandparents. The parents are allowed to migrate for work but they are not allowed to live there and use the services.


Table 1: Demographics of the Left Behind Children in China in 2015




  How often they see their parents

  Who cares for them

0-6 years old


Once a year


Living with one parent

53% (32 million)

6-14 years old


Twice or more a year


Live with grandparents

33% (20 million)

15-17 years old


Every two years or longer


Live with others

11% (6.5 million)

        Live alone

3% (2.1 million)


Source: All China Women’s Federation

Figure 2: Responses of the parents of left behind children in regards to their parenting in China in 2015 

Source: All China Women’s Federation

Given the large number of “left-behind children”, are there government programs designed to address this problem?

In theory, yes. In practice, no. Some schools will have left-behind children service centers, which are ineffective anyhow.  Over the past ten years, I have been working on projects relating to vision in schools, nutrition in schools, teacher training in schools, and children health services in villages. We tested children for their education levels, physical health, mental health, height, weight, anxiety levels, and language. We then asked them if their parents worked at home or away from home. We had 141,000 kids in this dataset. There were 20,000 children who were left behind, meaning that both parents were gone, and 60,000 children who lived with their parents. Surprisingly, we found that children living with their parents were actually worse off in health, education, nutrition than children who were left behind. What you have to ask yourself is, who are the left-behind kids? What would they have been like if they lived in the city with their parents? We then looked into what kinds of families have both parents going to work in cities and found that these families are more ambitious and have better education. The children tend to be, perhaps, naturally smarter. Because we never observed the kids actually going into the city with their parents, we don’t know how much better off they would have been if they were with their parents. But one possible reason that the left-behind children tend to be better off than the children living with their parents in the countryside is because these kids are naturally stronger, mentally and physically. It may also be because both parents are working in the city. In one month, the husband would make about 5,000 yuen and the wife would make about 3,000 yuen. Whereas if husband and wife were both working on the farm, they would make about 3,000 yuen a month, meaning that the husband and wife working in the city are about three times as rich as the couple working in the village. The fact that left-behind children are better off than the children living with their parents doesn’t mean that being left behind doesn’t hurt them. It also doesn’t mean that the children living with their parents don’t need help. I completely object to the idea of providing left-behind children with services. What we should be doing is supplying children who are left behind and children who are living with their parents the exact same services. But that is a minority opinion in China.

You have been conducting research on the developmental well-being of rural children for years. Can you share with us your findings regarding their educational attainment and cognitive development and explain whether being left behind has an adverse impact on these children?

The educational attainment is better for left-behind children. It could be that they have more input. Their parents make more money and are able to send them money for better food, brighter lights, warmer houses, and better schools. It could also be that they are naturally smarter.

Now, this next part will contradict what I just told you.

The one place where we see very severe and immediate consequences for left-behind children is when the mom leaves the child when they are a baby. When the baby is 6 months old, about 98% of moms are home. By the time the baby is 18 months, about 40% of moms will hand the baby to the paternal grandmother and go back to work. The baby is then raised by the grandma. Immediately, the IQ of the baby falls and their socio-emotional scores fall. The Thousand-Day hypothesis states that when the baby is 2 years old, the baby’s IQ is set, or mostly set, for life. Because of this hypothesis, we can see that the fall in these babies’ IQ scores are serious and lifelong. That is the worst left-behind children problem there is, namely that being left too young leaves a negative long-term impact on these children. Because of this, there should be a new social service, that doesn’t currently exist in China, where moms are paid or rewarded for staying with their children in the village or taking their children with them to the city. With this, not only does the family benefit because their child is going to be smarter, but also China is going to benefit because the future labor force will be smarter.

What are the future consequences for China’s economic development if tens of millions of its rural children are not getting the education or developmental attention they need?

There are lifelong consequences for both individuals and for the productivity of the country’s economy when a child’s cognition falls as a baby. There are negative consequences for individual growth and economic growth. There would be higher social spending because we would need to send these kids to special education programs and they would probably commit more crimes and need more unemployment insurance. These consequences are evident in the Philippines where there is tremendous out-migration of moms. What they found is children living without their moms are doing better in school than the kids whose moms aren’t gone. But when these kids get to be 25 to 30, they tend to have socio-emotional problems and often are not well-adjusted. They tend to do worse in the long run than kids who lived with their mothers for a long time.

Many cities in China impose strict rules on who qualifies for benefits like education and healthcare. The New York Times wrote that, in effect, these cities are treating rural migrants as second-class citizens. Can you elaborate on this idea of second-class citizens? What is the government’s role in this rural-urban divide?

The government controls the rural-urban divide and does not want to get rid of it. The government sees the urban people as their constituency and the rural people as existing to serve the urban people. This is a very deep, ingrained system of 70 years and it is government-imposed. It creates a two-tiered system of education and health and essentially creates these two classes.

What would be the most effective policy to address the problem of “left-behind” children?

The most effective policy to address the problem of left-behind children is to either get rid of the hukou system or subsidize mothers so that they can stay home at least until their children are 3 years old.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to eliminate poverty by 2020. Is this a realistic goal because that’s just three years from now?
Poverty is not going to go away. There will always be poverty everywhere. It’s a ridiculous goal. However, with China’s circumstances, it should have very poverty-focused programs.

Articles about Rural Education in China:



Mind the Gap: China’s Great Education Divide


By Kristie Lu Stout

Although students in Shanghai, China had the highest scores globally in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2013, these scores do not reflect those of the nation. Rural schools tend to lack funding, supplies, education resources, and teachers with proper training. Thus, students in rural areas are disadvantaged, with only 40% of the rural poor attending high school and less than 5% attending university. While the Chinese government plans to implement education reforms, educators have equity concerns.   

How Chinese Schools Discriminate Against 65% of the Population  By The Economist

Photos of rural children descending an 800-meter cliff on their way to school shocked many in China in 2016, when journalists captured students from 6 to 15 years old descend an old steep ladder in order to get to class. The largely neglected education of rural communities is not only devastating for these students, but it also hurts the future of China’s workforce. Students have been allowed to attend boarding schools in order to avoid these dangerous journeys; however, the conditions of these boarding schools are often very poor. Moreover, boarding schools cannot solve the rural-urban education disparity. The government inherently works against the rural community with its hukou system, which distinguishes urban and rural citizens and allots each their own social services. Because of the hukou system, rural children are not allowed to attend urban schools and access urban health services. Citizens that move to the city to escape the poorly resourced rural system are then treated as second-class citizens, inferior to the urban population.

China’s Education Gap

By Helen Gao

China has significantly expanded basic education and grown the number of college graduates in the past decade. However, its hukou system discriminates against the rural population and works against social mobility. Approximately 60 million students in rural schools are “left-behind” children, meaning that they are cared for by their grandparents or others as their parents work in cities. These rural schools often have poor facilities, poorly trained teachers, and problematic curricula. The inferior rural education disadvantages rural students from competing with their urban counterparts. However, having urban residency does not guarantee meritocracy either. The competition to get into top-ranking schools has increased significantly, with many parents paying schools as “donations” to secure their children’s enrollment. China’s education system is gradually becoming more and more unequal.


Julie Tran CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image “Baibi Mountain Village, Xijiang, Guizhou Province, China” by Thomas Galvez from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.”

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