Children & the Chinese Child

Everybody loves children.  Every culture embraces them.  They are, as so many songwriters and poets have reminded us, the future itself.

Our children are our future.
Our children are our future in the most literal sense.

Nowhere, however, have I seen children quite so revered as they are here in China.  They are universally adored, coddled, and the focal point of every family’s life.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that Chinese culture turns on personal relationship and obligation and no relationship is more deep-rooted and binding than family.  Confucius, in fact, made filial piety (xiào) the cornerstone of much of his philosophy of rights and obligations.

As a result, or perhaps because of it, the government provides little in the way of financial support for the elderly.  That is considered a family obligation.  Because of the dissolution of the family unit due to migration and urbanization, greatly increasing life expectancy, and what is referred to as the ‘4-2-1 problem,’ however, it is an obligation increasingly difficult to satisfy.

Culture and policy combine to put intense pressure on students whose standardized test scores will largely determine the opportunities open to them as adults.
Culture and policy combine to put intense pressure on students whose standardized test scores will largely determine the opportunities available to them as adults.

The 4-2-1 problem arises as a direct result of China’s one-child policy, officially known as the family planning policy, implemented in 1979 in an effort to control population growth.  In very practical terms it means that in the typical three-generation family, two of which are retired, one child/worker is responsible for supporting 6 of his or her elders (two parents and four grandparents), an obligation that doubles when the third generation member is widowed or whose spouse does not or cannot work.  (There are almost no spouses who choose not to work here.  It’s just not an option for all but the richest of Chinese.)

Now imagine that this one child is lost due to natural disaster (e.g. earthquake) or otherwise fails to succeed due to poor study habits or an inability to compete successfully in the workplace.  While this greatly enhances the propensity to over-protect and coddle children it likewise puts them under tremendous pressure to perform, particularly in school where standardized exams largely determine the career path that will be open to them.  Neither (over-protection or undue pressure) is likely to be helpful to the child’s proper development.  Both may contribute, as one reader previously noted, to narcissistic tendencies.  (As previously noted, academic achievement in China is a zero-sum game.  A child can only ‘succeed’ if his or her classmates fail.)

As elsewhere in the world children love to play together.  At home, however, the only child has no peers with which he or she must compete.
As elsewhere in the world children love to play together. At home, however, the only child has no peers with which he or she must compete and/or cooperate.

Now extrapolate the one-child policy laterally.  In addition to having no siblings, and being raised by parents who themselves were raised with no siblings, many only children have no aunts, uncles, or cousins either.  They have, in other words, not a single familial peer with whom they must compete on an equal emotional footing.

Needless to say this can have profound implications in terms of how adult Chinese express themselves, work through problems, share, or otherwise compete throughout their lives.  I see the impact every day.  It’s not that people are arrogant or self-centered as those terms are normally used.  They simply struggle to collaborate or, as noted in a prior post, compromise or sublimate self-interest in the interest of the best collective outcome.

This, of course, can also lead to an inability to embrace diversity, generally reinforcing the cultural tendency that inhibits ethnic and cultural assimilation, a tendency likely to be reinforced by the gender imbalance indirectly caused by the one-child policy.

If parents prefer sons because of an erroneous perception that they are somehow stronger or more determined, the parents of this little girl surely make no such false assumptions.
If parents prefer sons because of an erroneous perception that they are somehow stronger or more determined, the parents of this little girl surely hold no such false beliefs.

While the male/female imbalance has shown signs of improving recently, the male/female birth rate has been running at 117:100 in recent years, well above the global average of 103:100 – 107:100 that is considered biologically normal.  This, of course, is due primarily to the practice of gender-selective abortions, although it is technically illegal for doctors or other healthcare providers to disclose the sex of an unborn fetus to the parents.  (In practice, it is quite easy to find out and every parent that I’ve discussed the question with has.)

In reality, the one-child policy has never been universally applied.  There have always been exceptions for people living in rural areas (parents were allowed a second child if the first was a daughter or physically or mentally challenged); ethnic minorities, of which there are 55, have generally been excluded from the restriction; and some cities have allowed parents to have a second child if both parents were themselves only children.

There are, in fact, many exceptions to the one child policy, as this brother and sister attest.
There are, in fact, many exceptions to the one child policy, as this brother and sister attest.

Like almost all national policies in China, the family planning policy is administered provincially and local authorities have been given wide latitude as to its application and enforcement.  Sichuan Province, for example, site of the devastating 2008 earthquake, which killed more than 87,000 people and left 4.8 million people homeless, immediately made an exception for parents who lost their only child in the quake.

And the central government did, of course, as has been widely reported abroad, relax the family planning policy even further during the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China’s 18th Central Committee in October, 2013, allowing married couples, only one of which is an only child, to have a second child.

The reason for further relaxing the policy remains a little unclear since the government concurrently announced that it will not abandon the policy altogether, as some had predicted.  I believe, however, and it is strictly my guess, that part of the rationale had to do with the simple principle of fairness and the desire to address the growing gulf between the rich and everyone else.

As in the West, wealth can overcome obstacles, including the family planning policy.
As in the West, wealth can overcome obstacles, including the family planning policy.  What is the sacrifice of public education if you will send your children to a private school anyway?

You see, while I have no doubt that there have been cases of over-zealous local officials forcing women to abort a non-exempt second child  (I, myself, am unaware of any such case.), the primary penalty for violation of the family planning policy is financial.  In addition to paying a fine, which is undoubtedly negotiable, depending on your relationship with the local government, the offending couple has to pay the educational and medical costs of the second child.

Which, for the wealthy, isn’t a deterrent at all.  It’s a paper dragon.

I suspect, therefore, that the net impact of the new policy on Chinese birth rates will be quite small.  Those who want and can afford a second child already have or will have one.  And those that can’t – well, they can’t afford it.

Living in China can be inexpensive if you’re willing to do without modern conveniences and live in a confined space.  Raising a child, under any circumstances, is not.  To get the kind of education you will need to be anything other than a manual laborer, someone will need to pay.  And universal healthcare, even under the best of circumstances, has its limitations.  Most people will need money when serious illness strikes.

Young children and their mothers almost never stand on the crowded subways of Beijing.
Young children and their mothers almost never stand on the crowded subways of Beijing.

And then there are those, of course, who are so consumed with getting ahead that they don’t have time for marriage, much less children.

All that said, however, the Chinese do universally adore children.  With few exceptions young children traveling with their parents on the Beijing subway are offered seats in otherwise jammed subway cars that would not have been sacrificed for their parents.  In a country focused on today, but in which today’s labor is universally considered a sure path to tomorrow’s grand aspirations, children are both the symbol of a future yet to come and the prize for parents and grandparents who, after years of doing without, are in the previously unimaginable position to coddle and spoil; to celebrate, as they are sometimes called, a generation of ‘little emperors.’

Why not?

Why not, indeed?
Why not, indeed?

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.