The central government has vowed to improve the lot of the millions of children “left behind” in rural areas by their parents and put new systems in place to safeguard their

rights over the next five years.

But one child welfare advocate described the proposals released by the State Council on Sunday as too long in coming and toothless, saying the policies would not be legally binding.

An estimated 61 million children have been left behind to fend for themselves while their parents live and work in other parts of the country, usually in more affluent manufacturing hubs such as the Pearl River and Yangtze River deltas.

The State Council’s proposals are designed to cut that number, in part by urging parents to take their children with them or arrange adult supervision to ensure that children younger than 16 do not live alone.

The proposals, dated February 4, also outline a more active role for schools, community authorities and other government-affiliated organisations in monitoring the welfare of these children.

They would provide services and support, and also report cases where children may have been abused or have gone missing.

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The plans would involve an overhaul of existing laws and systems to strengthen parental supervision.

The authorities would also subsidise social services provided by charities, social workers and volunteers.

In a first, the government said it would set up a mandatory reporting mechanism for emergencies. But there was no detail on what the system might be.

Sun Xuemei, founder of Girls’ Protecting, a non-governmental organisation established in 2013 by women journalists to counter sexual abuse of schoolgirls, welcomed the proposals.

“We welcome the policy although it’s still at an early stage. A gradual approach is needed to tackle the problem and the first thing is to raise awareness of the issues faced by left-behind children,” Sun said.

But she also said some system was needed to hold education, medical and government organisations to account if they failed to report cases of child abuse.

READ MORE: Lack of school support for China’s migrant children a crying shame

Kong Weichao, a child welfare lawyer, said the proposed policy had been long in coming.

“This is the first time the government has proposed a mandatory reporting mechanism since the law to protect young children was introduced in 1991. But there are no details about implementation. The problem is a pressing one,” Kong said.

“It’s pretty much a toothless tiger. It still puts the stress on parents in terms of child protection. But in northern Europe and Australia government organisations are held responsible if they neglect to prevent child abuse.”

Cases of left-behind children coming to harm have made headlines repeatedly in the past decade. In one shocking case last year, four rural children in Bijie, Guizhou province, whose father was working away from home, killed themselves by drinking pesticide.

In 2012, five young children in the same area were suspected to have died from carbon monoxide poisoning while sheltering from the cold.

Some children are cared for by their grandparents, but this has not prevented these children falling victim to sexual abuse, drugs, violence, bullying or accidental injury.

Despite continuing concern over the plight of left-behind children, no effective measures were implemented during the country’s decades-long economic boom.

The mainland is now experiencing slower growth, resulting in numerous factory closures and forcing many migrant workers to return home.

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