Guang’an, China—Jiang Xin leaves school at 2:30 p.m. everyday. On his way home, the 8-year-old usually lingers by the rice fields with his friends for an hour or so, squatting on the edge of a dirt road, where trucks loaded with coal roar by. They play with pebbles, exchange school gossip, or punch the buttons of Jiang’s video game player, which he wrapped in tape to prevent from falling apart. Their cattle stand together in a nearby field, grazing on grass stalks.

Around 3:30, the children fetch their cattle and head home. Jiang lives in a two-story shack on a small hill with his brother and grandparents. Soon after he leads the cattle into the pen and latches the gate, his grandparents return from a long day working in the fields, sometimes carrying large bundles of wood to add to their...

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