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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

China’s Generation ’One-Child’

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by Gunjan Singh


The One-Child policy was introduced in China in the year 1979 by Deng Xiaoping with the ambition that it will help in strengthening the economic policies introduced by him. He believed that economic policies would help in making China a stronger nation. Enough has been written and debated over the positives and the negatives of this policy from almost all the perspectives that are available. But the primary focus of this paper is to look into the generation ‘one-child’ of China.

The Chinese Government has been highly successful in controlling the number of births by its One-Child policy and the children born under that rule have come to be the current youth of China. The generation preceding them has been the one which had faced the Cultural Revolution and had seen the major turmoil in the Chinese society. Most of them had missed on their education as they were sent to the countryside and a majority also lost their jobs due to this.

The generation that followed is the one which is primarily of the ‘One-Child’ era. They are the children who have had all their demands being granted by their parents. This is the reason why there are debates that this generation can be seen as more pampered and individualistic in nature. But one needs to think: is it the fault of the children that they are individualistic or pampered? Or is it the fault of the policies and the sudden economic growth of the country which have allowed a certain section of the population to ‘get rich first’?

The lack of a sibling can definitely mean that the children had no obligation or pressure to share things and learn to adjust. They were generally alone as both the parents would be working till late. This left them more time and space as to choose to do whatever they want. The purchasing power available also meant that they could get whatever they demanded as the parents had only one child to take care of and thus they wanted to fulfil all the demands.

The change in the housing structure (primarily in the cities) means that the children have a room to themselves quite early in age and as a result they start thinking about their individual space and do not like the interference of their parents too much into their lives. The ongoing break-up of the large family structure of China is also responsible for this development.

The expectations of the parents are also too high from this generation. They are under constant pressure to perform and do their best—get the best grades in school and also secure a university place. The reason behind it can also be that most of the parents had missed their chance for a better education due to the Cultural Revolution. This is why they have penned down all their hopes on their only child. Another important factor is that the single child is under all the pressure to perform as there are no siblings to take the role. They have to be up to the mark with almost all the wishes of their parents. The parents do not have an option to think that if one child could not do a certain thing the other will.

This also leads to the fact that the parents are too much interested in the private lives of their children. What the kid is doing and where he is at what time has become an obsession with the parents. The pressure is so high that there have been incidents when the parents have even hired private detectives to keep a check on their children’s behaviour if they feel that there is something suspicious.

On the other hand due to the very same reasons the children feel that their parents are depriving them from having a normal childhood. The pressure from school added with the pressure from home sometimes makes them rebellious. They out of anger do not want to follow what their parents want them to do. The basic anger is against the fact that the parents decide what they should be doing and the children are not allowed to follow their desires and talents when it comes to deciding on a vocation.

The dream to be rich and powerful has been instilled in the minds of this generation. The majority believes that the ultimate aim in life should be to become rich and famous. No one can blame them for this. No doubt it is they who have seen and faced the major economic upheavals in the Chinese society. They have come face to face with the power that monetary security brings and they have also seen the problems that lack of it brings.

The predecessor to this generation feels that the children today are less morally driven and they have no respect for the elders in society. They want to have their own space and have no consideration for the elders. This can be understood with the assumption that the elders wanted their children to have all the traditional values and also have the modernised zeal to become as rich as possible. They were not allowed leisure time to play or to spend with other people as that would hamper their studies. As a result the current population is more individualistic and little away from the traditional Chinese values. Almost all of them have grown singleton and thus have seen an environment where their desires and demands have been generally put before the other demands of the household.

The parents’ hopes and aspirations can be summed up from the reason that they have to depend on their only child in old age. In some cases four old people have to depend on two children in old age. That is why they want their children to have the best education and gain the best job available so that they have the capacity to look after their parents. The zeal is all the more aggravated due to the fact that the social security system is still not in place in China and thus the majority of the population have to rely primarily on their own savings or on their children’s’ savings for the old age.

The younger people today are more connected with the latest developments with the help of the internet. They have their own blog spaces and believe in having open discussions and debates. This makes them more vocal and confident about themselves. Some of the surveys show that due to this it is the younger generation which is doing the maximum amount of speaking in the household as compared to the older generation. Most of the commercial houses also keep the choice of the younger people in mind while designing their add campaigns. They are seen to be the main drivers of the consumer society.

They are also more fashion-oriented and want to assert their own styles as compared to the previous generation whose members were made to believe that any time spent on make-up or fashion was a bourgeois vice. Today the younger people are adopting the Japanese and Korean styles. Most of the Chinese girls like to dress up like their Japanese counterparts. This is tough for the elders to understand.

This is the reason why it would not be wrong to say that normally the generation gaps in countries could be measured in decades but in the case of China this time period is as small as two to three years. The society is changing so fast that it has become tough for most of the elders to keep pace with the changes. The younger people, on the other hand, are in a flux. They are expected to do contradictory things. The parents expect them to be good in studies, do not spend time with friends and at the same time be family oriented. As a result of this the children do not know how to cope up with the pressure.

They also have a large amount of money at their disposal, which was not the case a few years back. The younger generation are simultaneously looking for role models which are different from their parents’ role models. The success of the reality show—Super Girls—is a good example of that. They are looking for outlets which are creative and analytical. They do not want to be educated in the same way as their parents were.

But the lack of any role models and other ambitions in life apart from securing a good job and having money should be seen as an unhealthy phenomenon. The kids are expected to learn and do so many things that they lose on their child- hood. The education system is the one to be blamed but then there is the other factor: the expectations of the parents. Everybody is in a rat race. Either you perform or you are left out.

These features have also opened debates regarding the preparedness of this generation to be adults and look after their country and their families. According to adults, they are less prepared as they have received a very secure and stable life-style which is quite unlike the reality of the world. The changes in society have forced the parents to see their children as an investment for the uncertain future.

Gunjan Singh is a Research Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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