'Little Emperors' must learn to share

China's first generation of only children are almost adults. Will they cope? asks Teresa Poole
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The Independent Online
XIAO LI was 21 when she left her native Zhejiang province in eastern China to go to university in Yunnan, in the south-west of the country. At home she had studied hard, but was not expected to help with cooking or the laundry. So university was a shock. She hated sharing a room, ate only the bread and biscuits her father had left her, never found the boiled- water drinking tap and rarely ventured out. Just one week after arriving, she left a note saying she was quitting and set off for home.

China's first generation of only children is now reaching adulthood, the product of the one-child policy introduced in the late Seventies. Xiao Li is one of about 65 million only children in China, according to official statistics. Almost all are in the cities, where the one-child policy has always been enforced more strictly than in the countryside.

"Eighty per cent of new students enrolled during the past two years are only children," said the deputy director of the Yunnan University office, commenting on Xiao Li's case. "They cried before entering university, they cried on the Moon Festival, cried on National Day and were anxious to go back home in the middle of term for Chinese New Year," he told the Peking Youth Daily.

And when the Year of the Tiger starts on Wednesday, these spoilt kids will expect lavish presents. The question now being asked by Chinese experts is how this only-child generation is going to cope as adults, and whether they are up to shouldering their expected social responsibilities.

In China's cities these days, teenagers and school-leavers do not know what it is like to look after a brother or sister. At the Number 2 Middle School in Peking, 16-year-old Wu Lili is an only child, as are all her classmates and friends.

Would she have liked a sibling? "No. I think he or she may share my everything - clothes and other things." Might it not be good to have to share? "I don't think so. I have lots of beautiful things. When I go to the street, my mother may buy some drink for me, but if I have a sister, she would buy one more and that would cost a lot," she said, in impressively conversational English.

But only-child status cuts both ways. This is one of the best schools in Peking, and the lives of its teenagers already centre on winning a coveted university place. Lin Weijing, 16, agreed there was extra pressure on her. "My parents hope I will achieve a lot, so I have to work hard to meet it. I am the only child, the only hope in the family."

Exam results, not washing up, is what matters to most Chinese parents. A study of 100 kindergarten pupils in northern Heilongjiang province two years ago found that 90 could play the piano, 80 could recite Tang Dynasty poems, but only 10 could tie their own shoelaces.

Not having peers with siblings, the students seemed unable to understand why an only child might be expected to grow up differently. But Shi Lei, 17, admitted to liking the idea of having a brother. "Because boys will protect you if somebody says some bad words or beats you." What happens now? "I can protect myself." And there were advantages to being an only child, she insisted: "My parents love me more."

A Peking survey in 1996 found that one-third of a family's disposable income was spent on the child, as parents indulged his or her every whim. Of this group of six students at the No 2 Middle School, none would admit to being spoilt, despite a list of presents which included Nike shoes, a computer and a CD player - common enough possessions of Western teenagers, but available only to the privileged in China. Some did agree that "Little Emperors" existed among their classmates. "They like to show off with a Walkman or a watch," said Wu Lili. "I think they are a little arrogant."

Potential sociological problems are China's greatest worry: as this first cohort of only children emerge as adults, they must learn to collaborate at work rather than compete. "This generation of only children are mostly egocentric," said Professor Wang Zhenyu, at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "They are wilful, and the process of acclimatising themselves to society and getting on with others is always long and hard."

But it is not all bad news. Balancing this, she added, is the fact that this generation is well-developed intellectually, well-nourished and high achievers at school. Attendance at extra-curricular courses - computers, English, piano and painting - has produced China's most skilled school- leavers ever.

Yao Fuzhang, a physics teacher who is head of the Principal's Office at the No 2 Middle School, gave an illustration of how parental behaviour can be the root of the problem. He described what happened recently when one class was due to go for 10 days of standard military camp.

"Before they went to camp, the parents did all the packing, and thought of everything their child might need. In fact, the training camp is good for students, not austere. But the parents worried that it was too hard, so they prepared lots of snacks for the children.

"At the departure point, the children turned up with their parents carrying their packs. And when these students boarded the trucks, the parents called to them to be careful, as if they were really going to war. Some mothers even cried," he said with evident disdain.

For such children, going to university usually means sharing a room, learning to cook and living in a group environment for the first time. Professor Wang said that, in the past, new students made friends easily. "But now, as every only child stresses his or her own interests, there is always conflict among them in university and teachers must mediate."

Chinese schools are now trying to engender greater collegiate spirit among their pupils. Mr Yao's school has student class monitors and representatives for each subject. "We let those students take these roles in turn, so each child has to do service for the group ... But we have to teach the parents how to educate their children."

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