Restrictions on Migration Create Gender Inequality: The Story of China's Left-Behind Children

Xuwen Gao, Peking University
Wenquan Liang, Jinan University
Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, Yale University
Ran Song, Yale-NUS College


About 11% of the Chinese population are rural-urban migrants, and the vast

majority of them (124 million people) possess a rural hukou which severely

restrict their children’s access to urban public schools. As a result, 61 million

children are left behind in rural areas. We use a regression-discontinuity

design based on school enrollment age cutoffs to document that migrants are

significantly more likely to leave middle-school-aged daughters behind in poor

rural areas without either parent present when schooling becomes expensive,

compared to middle-school-aged sons. The effect is larger when the daughter

has a male sibling. Migrant parents send significantly less remittances back to

daughters than sons. Migrants from rural areas adjacent to cities with more

restrictive hukou policies are more likely to separate from children as new

job opportunities arise in nearby cities due to trade-induced shocks to labor

demand. This produces a shift-share IV strategy, when paired with a longitudinal

dataset shows that those children complete 3 fewer years of schooling,

are 41% more likely to fail high school entrance exams, have worse mental and

physical health, and remain poor as adults. Although China’s hukou mobility

restrictions are not gender-specific in intent, they have larger adverse effects on