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China’s Little Emperors – Victims of the One Child Policy?

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb

China’s Little Emperors – Victims of the One Child Policy?

Written by Chao Huang 

Edited by Nicole Webb

An eight second video clip featuring a boy around ten kicking his mum five times because she wouldn’t let him play on her phone has gone viral on Chinese social media, much to the disgust of netizens.

The shocking video was taken in a Guangzhou hospital in China’s south. In it you see the boy’s grandmother trying to block the little boy from attacking his mum. 

This is by no means an an isolated story in China. With over three decades of the “One Child Policy” there’s a popular belief that China is bringing up a nation of ‘Little Emperors’ and ‘Little Princesses.’ In fact the Little Emperor Syndrome is a genuine phenomenon and many parents have been accused of being unable to discipline their kids.

Another video that went viral last November shows a young graduate beating up an older couple in the street, right outside a real estate showroom in Harbin, China’s north. It turns out, the older couple were, in fact, his parents. The mandatory and customary wedding gift given in China from the grooms’ parents of an apartment just wasn’t up to scratch. “Too small and embarrassing,” according to their spoiled son.

Of course all kids (and some grown ups) are liable to have a meltdown at one time or another, and there are plenty of one child families, my current situation included, so what’s so different about China?

China’s Little Emperors – Victims of the One Child Policy?

In 1979, the one-child policy was introduced to slowdown China’s soaring population in what was then a very poor country. 

In order to comply with Chairman Mao’s “Human Resources Are Power” philosophy, most families had multiple children but many were struggling to raise them. Growth was out of control, leaping nearly 75% from 1949 to 1976; its per capita income was about 300 yuan, or just over $48. Without the policy, China’s population today would have been well over the 1.4-billion it is.

While each couple was restricted to one child, there were exceptions to the rule!  Couples could apply to have a second child if their first child was disabled, they were of ethnic minority or farmers in rural areas. Or, if your first child was a girl, you were given leniences. 

My personal story can attest to it, thanks to me being a girl, our family got a permit seven years after I was born to have their second child. My little brother, you are welcome. 😉

China’s Little Emperors – Victims of the One Child Policy?

In the cities though, family-planning regulations were strictly enforced. Couples who ended up having one child were granted an ‘Honorary One Child Certificate’ while couples who violated the policy faced high fines, loss of employment and often forced abortions. Mind you, many richer families could have another child by simply paying the high fine.

Lasting more than three decades the policy has long been steeped in controversy.

It’s been well documented that it led to abortions, female infanticide (from the traditional Chinese point of view, having a boy was superior) and the under-reporting of births – especially girls. It was also implicated as a cause of the stagnant birthrate, gender imbalance and much more. Many studies done on China’s ageing population and starkly low birth rate show the fertility rate in Beijing and Shanghai is about 0.7 – far below the national figure of about 1.5 and far, far below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. 

This generation of only children from the 1980s and ‘90s have now reached adulthood and many have become parents themselves. Most of the newlyweds and budding couples have no siblings, leading to what has been dubbed the “4-2-1 syndrome.” 

China’s Little Emperors – Victims of the One Child Policy?

Four grandparents at the bottom, two precious parents in the middle and one priceless “Little Emperor” ruling at the top.

With them all often living under the same roof there’s a definite element of “helicopter” parenting. These little ones are waited on hand and foot, wrapped in cotton wool right up until they get married and have their own children. 

These so called Little Emperors have also been forced to bear the burden of heavy expectations, particularly by parents and grandparents who feel they lost their chance in the Cultural Revolution.

Often the grandparents are the ones doing the nurturing while the parents work and some say they tend to let them get away with blue murder. 

There is immense pressure on these only children to succeed academically in today’s competitive society of 1.4 billion – and it’s common for nearly half a family’s income to be spent on a child’s education.

Parents struggle to distance themselves from their kid’s success and with so much emphasis on educating their “precious commodities”, there’s not enough time spent on guidance and manners.

As much as I believe the Chinese tradition of molly-coddling the child also plays a big part, researchers have proven the theory that sibling “deprivation” alters the relationships with parents and changes the way a child develops. And the stories of unruly, out of control kids, like those mentioned earlier are not uncommon at all. 

This kind of small-sized, pyramid-like family structure, together with a dramatic increase in wealth has “produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals,” according to an article in the prestigious journal Science.

The introduction of the two child policy last year, after 35 years, has been seen by many as too little, too late, with a rapidly ageing population, under supply of young workers and over supply of males to females. 

Many couples don’t want a second child, fearing they can’t afford it in today’s high pressured society and they admit they also worry about giving more than one child enough attention.

The name “Fuerdai” has been given to older generations of the policy, which translates as “rich second generation” or those kids of the nouveau riche. Labelled ‘spoilt brats’ President Xi Jinping has even called for national effort to make them appreciate where money comes from.

Needless to say, the majority of grown up only children in China are decent, hard working people who got the best education in the world under an entire family’s support. But being the only one in your generation means your children don’t have many cousins or extended families — isn’t that kind of sad?

China’s Little Emperors – Victims of the One Child Policy?

One of the biggest issues for only children in China is who will look after the elderly. It’s generally non-negotiable in China that as parents age, their children will bear the responsibility of looking after them, both financially, physically and mentally. The new 4:2:1 syndrome places a huge sense of responsibility on only children. Many wish they had other siblings as so called “Back up.”

China believes the policy has prevented 400-million births, contributing to China’s unparalleled economy growth and development since the 1980’s.

But others have called it China’s most radical experiment in social engineering – the media dubbing its Little Emperors, China’s loneliest generation.

China’s Little Emperors – Victims of the One Child Policy?


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