Preface: For many in the West, China’s one-child policy is a hot-button issue. Numerous academic and polemical articles have been written on it, with which I am only partially acquainted. But I see its fruits everyday on the streets and in the homes of the large Chinese city where I live, and I have a “street level” view of it through dozens of conversations with students, fellow teachers, and other acquaintances for whom the policy is a fact of everyday life. Polemics aside, this report may provide readers a small glimpse into this unique social phenomenon.
Chinese history is often defined in terms of dynasties and the various emperors that ruled in each dynasty. Children learn their names in grade school. Probably everyone has heard of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) from the pottery and antiques that made it famous.
Stretching back even further was the Qin (pronounced Chin) dynasty (221-210 BC) and its famous emperor, Shi Huangdi. This was the emperor who was responsible for the beginning of the fortified walls that eventually became the Great Wall of China and for the army of terracotta warriors that guard his tomb. What images that have survived show him to have been an imposing figure. One can only imagine him sitting on his throne issuing edicts, ruling over his generals, and even deciding who lives and who dies.
The One-Child Policy
While the emperors of old are long gone, there is talk these days about a new class of emperors-little emperors. These are the present generation of little children born under the edicts of China ‘s one-child policy.
This policy, first instituted in 1979 and increasingly enforced in the 1980s, was designed to control a population growth rate that threatened to outstrip China ‘s capacity to feed itself, and for almost 30 years it has restricted parents to only one child under the threat of heavy penalties. The policy is most strictly applied to urban dwellers where the demand for public services is most acute, but elsewhere over the years there have been many changes and exceptions. For example, in rural areas, two or more children are permitted, especially if the first is a girl. This exception bows to the need for rural families to have enough children to help work the farm.
After the earthquake disaster in Sichuan province, parents were permitted to have more children to replace those lost in this tragedy. I am told that even in the city, if both the husband and wife are themselves only children, they can have two children. Again this is a nod to practicality to avoid the situation where an only child becomes responsible for two aging parents and two sets of even older grandparents. This is known as the 4.-2-1 problem.
There are many other exceptions-twins, for instance-but the norm for three decades has been to have only one child. In terms of population control, the policy has apparently been very effective. One estimate claims that the policy has resulted in 300 million fewer Chinese being born than would otherwise have been the case-a number equal to that of the present population of the United States.
The Little Emperors
But what of the social consequences? The other day when I was in a taxi waiting for the stop sign to turn green, I saw a three-year-old driving his own small, motorized, toy car across the crosswalk. That a three-year-old should have his own car and be permitted to drive it around in traffic seemed to stretch the bounds of parental liberality.
Only on second glance did I see that his grandfather, who followed a few steps behind, was actually controlling the car with a remote device. Still and all, this seemed like a major indulgence. And the Chinese are not unaware that indulgences like this one have the potential for these children to become little emperors like those of old: issuing orders, making demands, and throwing fits when not obeyed. With four grandparents and two parents all doting on one little child, it is difficult to avoid turning them into little dictators-with their own remote-controlled cars.
This phenomenon is studied in academia and appears often in the Chinese popular press. The Chinese themselves are quick to point out that they may be raising a generation of brats. They worry about their children’s sense of entitlement. While the grandparents may have lived through years of poverty (and even famine), they nevertheless shower affection and gifts on their only grandchild. Grandparents and parents have been known to wait outside grade school all day to provide transportation home. They tie their shoes, carry their packs, and even wipe their bottoms long after they are able to do so themselves.
Articles point out that this overindulgence may even have health consequences. The little emperors are becoming fast-food addicts, which may in turn foster a generation of obese kids. I remember seeing a mother with her eight-year-old in a McDonalds sitting patiently while he finished off an after-school treat of a milk shake and French fries. She was not eating. He can only be described as rotund.
Something Had To Be Done
While the idea of a government edict limiting how many children you can have is anathema to many in the West, I was surprised to learn that the average Chinese do not seem that concerned about it. Studies indicate that 75% of Chinese agree with the policy, and my anecdotal evidence would agree with that number. To them it is a practical matter. Something had to be done to control a mushrooming population, they say. One only needs to stand at a crowded bus stop during rush hour to understand their thinking.
Those in their 40s and 50s have seen an unbelievable transformation in China ‘s economy. While they might have been inclined in their early child-bearing years to have followed the traditional Chinese pattern of having more than one child and would have expected to tough it out as best they could economically, they now find that with only one child life has been better than they could have expected. Both parents have careers, a nice apartment, maybe a car, no concerns about feeding the family, and a child that is now in university. In dozens of my conversations with them, it is apparent they feel the one-child policy has been a boon.
Down On the Farm
While one would expect this attitude from the urban elite, the view from the farm does not seem to be much different. One farmer who has two sons and three daughters-more than he could afford to send to high school-observed that without that essential education his children were doomed to “the bottom of society.” Others noted that more children means more mouths to feed. Farm life in China is not what it used to be. As in the West, youth are leaving the farm to seek their fortunes in the cities, so a large family seems to have lost its economic appeal.
One Child or Two?
From my conversations with those in their 20s and 30s, I can only conclude that their attitude toward the one-child policy is ambiguous. There are some who express a vague wish for a second child. If they have a girl, they say it would be nice to have a boy, mostly to carry on the family name. If they have a boy, then they might wish for a girl thinking that having a child of each gender is more desirable.
None that I have spoken with was interested in having a second child of the same gender. Some had more practical considerations. One young mother worried about the 4-2-1 problem and thought a second child might guarantee that her old age would be more comfortable, especially if it were a girl. Some were interested in a playmate for the first child. If a fine were the only barrier to having a second child, some might risk it. But the risk is not spread evenly over Chinese society. For those with government jobs, the penalty has been not only a fine but also possibly being fired, and with the loss of a job goes the apartment, insurance, pension and other benefits. Here the risk has been too great.
What If I Could?
In all my conversations, I have yet to find someone who wanted to have the policy overturned so they could have a large family. Or if they did, they were not ready to admit it to a foreigner, although none seemed guarded in their conversations with me. Most of my acquaintances are young, urban professionals, and they seem reconciled to having only one child. In fact, it almost seems that the policy gives them top cover to pursue their professional careers and move in more affluent circles. Since they can have only one child, most are putting it off until much later in their careers.
While all these social issues sort themselves out, there is no denying that the Chinese love their children. They dote on them, they are proud of them, they display them. One sees the beauty of family life everywhere on any given day. I see grandparents or parents lovingly tending to these little ones in the parks, on the streets, in the shopping malls. They push them around in prams or hold their arms to steady them as they take their first wobbly steps. This time of year they are all bundled up so that their bright eyes peering out are the only evidence there is a child under all the padding.
I have seen a child or two acting like a miniature Shi Huangdi, but no more so than in any Wal-Mart on any given Saturday in the United States. For the most part, what I see from my vantage point is pure joy on the faces of young parents as they treasure this one little child. And the children laugh and play under their parents’ watchful eyes just as you would see anywhere in the world.
China is now into the second generation of the one-child policy and while it may yet reap bitter social and economic fruit from this bit of social engineering, for now there is no doubt that the little emperors of China are also little treasures.