China's spoilt Little Emperors

Twenty years ago Peking launched its brutal one child family policy. Result: 65 million pampered only children.
Click to follow
I've heard that when they first go to university, some only children can't do anything, even wash their own clothes," said 20-year-old Li Yuening, an undergraduate at Tianjin city's Nankai University. "But if their parents have been educated, they won't spoil their child so much."

Her classmate, Liu Lu, 19, agreed: "In most one-child families, the parents lived through the Cultural Revolution. They lost so much during that period that they want to regain it all through their child. So they sometimes spend too much money, and maybe it makes the child a little selfish."

These two young women, both only children, are the product of one of the most brutal exercises in social enginering ever seen. Two decades ago, in 1979, the Chinese Communist Party launched its controversial "one- child-family" policy. In total, China now has 65 million only children, almost all of whom live in urban areas, where the "one child policy" has meant just that.

The first only children born under this regime - such as Ms Li and Ms Liu - have now reached adulthood. Mean-while, the younger generation growing up in China is characterised as pampered and spoilt "Little Emperors".

In rural areas, home to 70 per cent of Chinese, the policy since the mid-Eighties has increasingly allowed a second child, particularly if the first was a girl. But the traditional desire for sons and large families remains stubborn.

As the old saying puts it: "A married daughter is like splashed water" - ie, a waste (female infanticide always was a problem in imperial China). Family planning rules have exacerbated this age-old preference for male offspring, assisted by ultrasound technology and selective abortion. The result is an unnaturally high proportion of baby boys, building a store of social pressures for the future.

There is much debate inside China on all these questions. It is also difficult to separate the impact of mandatory family planning from the sweep of economic and social reforms during the same 20-year period. For instance, almost any child growing up now, with or without siblings, is massively spoilt compared to youngsters before 1979.

The Chinese government claims that the population is 300 million lower than it would have been without the one-child policy, although part of that trend would have occurred anyway with economic development. The steepest decline in the crude birth rate in fact took place before the policy was introduced, falling from 33.4 per 1,000 in 1970, to 18.25 in 1978, and 16.57 in 1997. If you look at the average number of children a woman bears, this fell from 5.8 in 1970, to about 1.9 nowadays (with the figure for urban residents below 1.3).

That still leaves more than 20 million babies born each year in China, and China's population, now 1.3 billion, is forecast to peak around 2050 at 1.6 billion. By then, the second major impact will be evident: a quarter of China's population will be over 60 years old - hence the urgency of developing the country's nascent pensions and social insurance system.

By that time, the imbalance in the rural sex ratio may also have caused problems, as tens of millions of Chinese farmers fail to find wives. When Nature is left to herself, 106 boys are born for every 100 girl babies.

According to Chinese figures, the sex ratio for first-born babies is basically normal, but rises alarmingly with each subsequent child: 121:100 for second-borns, 124 for third-borns, and 131 for fourth babies, according to the 1990 census.

"For the later babies, they know they have to pay a fine," said Xie Zhenming, at the China Population Information & Research Centre, "so they don't want to leave things to chance." (This is not true in ethnic minority areas, such as Tibet, where there is no bias against girl babies.)

Xie's survey of Zhejiang province, in east China, highlighted the social reasons for the imbalance between the number of girls and boys. In the north, well-developed co-operative industries were able to provide pensions, health care, and even funeral costs to support the elderly without sons. In the south there was no such provision, agricultural work needed men, and the social pressures to continue the family line were much stronger.

While the Chinese countryside is mired in traditional prejudices, China's cities are awash with well-dressed, doted-upon only children - and no one seems sure whether this is good or bad. At Nankai University, a group of eight students, all only children from various cities, took umbrage at the general notion that their generation would exhibit problems, compared with children with siblings.

"We do not feel any obvious differences between us," said 20-year-old Ji Fei. (For this Nankai year, about half are only children.) "Some people say the only child sometimes does not know how to care about other people's feelings. All of us know how to care about others, to be tolerant, to be loving." Zhao Xiaoyu, 20, added: "Only children long for communication with others, because when they are young, they feel alone." Even the shock of the six-person dormitories, after a childhood with the luxury of their own bedrooms was bearable, they said. "We have no choice, so we must get used to it and find interest in it," said 19-year-old Nie Ting.

China's generation of urban only children do not seem to revel in their singular position. "I would have liked a brother or a sister, it would have been interesting," said Siqing Gaowa, 20, at Nankai. "I want to have a brother, because if he is older he can protect me, and if younger I will not feel lonely. And when I go to college, my younger brother would stay with my parents," said Ms Nie.

These young adults were raised before China's 1990s boom, so their parents had less opportunity to lavish them with material goods. On the train back to Peking, I met four Chinese boys on a school trip, all only children aged between 11 and 13, from the north-east city of Jinzhou. Did they ever feel they were spoilt? "Yes," they chorused, gleefully. "Whatever is good to eat, my mother gets for me," said 12-year-old Zhang Xi, who was at least two stone overweight. Here, perhaps, were some of China's famed "Little Emperors", whose parents had just spent about two weeks' average wages sending their precious ones on a four-day educational visit to Tianjin and Peking.

China's government is well aware of the potential social pitfalls of its family planning policy, but also points to some obvious advantages of being an only child. Fu Zongbi, a family education expert at the Women's Federation, said: "The family is better off and they can devote more resources to an only child. The only child has a wider range of knowledge and a higher level of intelligence. The parents have enough time and energy to spend on education for the kids." Since the early 1980s, China has run parenting classes for adults, with emphasis in the cities on how not to spoil only children, but also on not overloading them with pressure to perform.

Plenty of other, bigger, surveys point to a more complicated picture. Materially-speaking, spending on children is certainly huge, accounting for up to one-third of total family income in the big cities.

A study of middle-school students in Hubei province found that at kindergarten and primary school, only children were mentally and physically superior to those with siblings, but that their behaviour was worse. However, by middle school, those differences in character had disappeared. On psychological ratings, against expectations, loneliness was more of a problem among those with siblings.

Part of the reason may be that Chinese urban children often attend full- time kindergarten from as young as three years old. Older urban children are also routinely sent to summer camps or quasi-military training. Luo Xubin, at the Young Pioneer Centre's Department of Social Activity, said: "Last summer, we organised 300 or 400 children from Peking to go to a military base in Hebei province. That was a kind of hardship camp. At the base, the children learned to take care of their daily life, the dormitory, had military training, held bonfire parties, and fished in the streams. It lasted five days. Getting out of the family, the children could use their own initiative."

The more worrying social problem probably comes from the huge pressure which parents these days put on their only children. Ms Fu quoted a survey in counties and towns in Jiangsu province which found that one-third of five-year-olds were already learning musical instruments, something which Chinese parents believe will increase their child's intelligence. In Peking, at the China Children's Centre, which is run by the Women's Federation, expensive piano lessons are on offer. "We have several hundred students learning the piano," said one staff member. "If the parents keep coming with the child, then the child continues to learn... However, more than half drop out after one or two years."

A little-known fact is that, under China's family planning rules, these only children, if they marry another only child, will be permitted to have two children.

Cong Jun, a senior official at the State Family Planning Commission, whose only child is now 21, said: "We find that when our people are better educated, they tend not to have children at all. It's a change of attitude to marriage and child-bearing. The young people in the cities now, a lot of them do not want to have any children. "But I can tell you, I really want to have two grandchildren!"