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China's little emperors and empresses get a taste of life with the peasants

City families are sending their pampered children to 'hardship camps', reports Teresa Poole
Fed Up with the kids during the long summer break? Feel they don't realise how easy they have it? How about a spell for your demanding offspring in a "hardship summer camp"?

For generations, parents around the world have complained that their children do not know how lucky they are, and this is now especially true in China, given its turbulent recent history. So when Shanghai recently announced it was recruiting youngsters for a "hardship summer camp", hundred of parents turned up eagerly seeking one of the 30 places for their pampered son or daughter.

Organised by the National Working Committee on Young Pioneers, the camp was designed to show the "little emperors" and "little empresses" produced by China's one-child policy how the other half lives. Parents, the Communist Party, and government officials are increasingly concerned that a new generation of only children, doted on by parents and grandparents in newly- affluent city families, are growing up unaware of harsher conditions elsewhere in the country.

Not only are standards of living fast improving for China's new urban middle classes, but the Chinese teenagers of today are also the first generation to have escaped the upheavals experienced by older Chinese, including civil war, the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Demand was so high that the number of places on the Shanghai camp, held this month, was doubled. The group, which visited poverty-stricken areas in Jiangxi province and met peasant children, was "shocked" by what it saw, according to the People's Daily. Before the camp, 90 per cent of urban youngsters had never helped with housework, said the report.

The Peking Committee on Young Pioneers encourages schools and enterprises to run similar trips. Tian Jingfeng is director of the Peking Young Eagle Education Centre, which over the past month has run eight "hardship summer camps" (monan shuqi xialing ying), each time for about 300 Peking youngsters.

For four days, the seven to 14 year olds camp out near villages in relatively poor regions to the north-east of the capital. "We cook in the wilderness and eat in the peasants' houses," said Mr Tian. "The children are not allowed to bring food or spending money with them. The food they eat during the four days is only worth 8 yuan (65p) a day. The children must draw the water from the well by themselves, instead of from the tap."

During term-time, so much emphasis is put on schoolchildren to perform well academically that there is little time for physical exercise. At the Young Eagle camps, the children are taken on three-mile daytime marches and surprise midnight hikes, and are drilled by soldiers from the Peking military garrison.

"Their physical education condition is not very good, because some of them are too spoiled at home. So quite a few students fell ill during the four days," said Mr Tian. "During the rain or thunder, some were even frightened to tears. But all the children said they really learned that their willpower should be exercised more. Only by perseverance can you go through hardship, that's what the children learned through the experience." There were plenty of applicants this year for the courses, which cost 120 yuan (pounds 10) per child.

The extent of recent changes in China was highlighted a couple of years ago, when news emerged of holiday weight-loss camps opening for fat urban children. The wealth gap between city and country has continued to grow, with a corresponding expansion in the relative girths of urban children. In the past five years, according to figures published last week, the number of obese urban children under five increased from 1.7 per cent to 4.2 per cent. In rural areas, 17.8 per cent of children under five are still underweight.

The Peking Hualin Enterprise Group last month ran its 16th "Beauty, Luck and Happiness Fat Children Weight Loss Camp", with 89 children, of whom the majority were deemed "very fat" or "obese".