All For One: Tracking the Course of China’s “Perfect” GenerationBy Deborah Blagg 05/29/2008 4:26 PM EST | Add a Comment
Raised and educated to lead a sweeping economic transition, the first generation born under China’s one-child mandate has come of age. Assistant Professor Vanessa Fong’s longitudinal study is looking at the experiences of a cohort of Chinese only-children as they enter adulthood and confront the challenges that will shape their country’s future.
Intent on jump-starting China’s transition from the Third World to the First World, in 1979 government officials enacted a one-child-per-family policy that has been widely observed in urban areas for the last quarter of a century. In a country where in 1970, most families had five or six children, it was a radical change. But with an annual per capita income for city dwellers of around $1,000, the hope was that single children would receive a bigger share of scarce family resources and have a better chance for productive lives.
Early indications are that this extraordinary fertility mandate has succeeded in yielding a generation of better-educated, achievement-oriented citizens who are accelerating China’s modernization and economic growth. But it has also set into motion a stunning and largely unanticipated array of changes in attitude regarding education, child-rearing, professional ambitions, and quality-of-life issues in a country that holds one-fifth of the world’s population.
Anthropologist and Assistant Professor Vanessa Fong is studying some of the unintended consequences – in areas ranging from early-childhood education to senior health care – that are unfolding as this broad societal experiment moves forward. “In many ways,” she observes, “this was the generation that was supposed to be the ‘perfect children.’ With only one child to raise, parents could provide the food, clothing, and education to make each child a winner.” Yet, as Fong notes in her 2004 book Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-Child Policy, China’s unnaturally rapid demographic shift has also produced “tuition inflation, diploma inflation, unrealistic expectations for children’s success, fear that parents will not have enough support in old age, and widespread complaints about a rising generation of ‘spoiled’ singletons.”
Only Hope analyzes the results of over 2 years of participant observation in Chinese schools and homes, and a survey of 2,273 teenagers born in the early days of China’s one-child-per-family policy. Fong gathered the data between 1997 and 2002, while living in the coastal city of Dalian, where she worked as an English language tutor. While the teens and families she came to know had sacrificed much to embrace capitalist ambitions – logging exhausting hours of studying and in some cases paying over $4,000 a year in private high school tuition – she found that “the desire to gain elite status against all odds can be problematic in a world where opportunities to attain elite status are far outnumbered by those who aspire to attain it.”
Fong’s ambitious longitudinal study will follow the cohort throughout the course of their lives. Her current focus is on how, as young adults, this demographic sample is experiencing marriage, pregnancy, childrearing, socioeconomic stratification, and efforts to pursue higher education in (and possibly emigrate to) countries such as the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom. “There’s a lot of pressure on this generation,” she comments. “Not only are their parents watching, but quite often two sets of grandparents, as well, are relying on them to, in effect, pay back the investment the whole family has made in their success.”
Fong stresses that it is not only individual families who have a stake in how this generation fares, but also the country as a whole. “What this policy has done is to change the problem of too many young dependents to a problem of too many elderly dependents,” she explains. A report recently released by China’s National Council projects an over-60 population of nearly 290 million, a figure that equals the entire population of the United States. “When families were larger,” comments Fong, “many siblings could pool their resources to provide for aging parents and grandparents. The policy’s architects gambled that by the time this first generation of singletons came of age, there would be more general prosperity.” In reality, however, prosperity has not kept pace with the rising expectations and declining social safety net that accompanied post-Mao economic reforms and demographic change. As a result, China’s unrelenting societal problems are being inherited by a radically downsized younger generation.
Against this harsh economic backdrop, it is not surprising that some of China’s twenty-somethings are delaying marriage and thinking twice about starting their own families. “There’s a backlash among some of these kids against having children,” reports Fong, who keeps in touch with many of her former Dalian students by phone, e-mail, and periodic visits to China. “Their parents sacrificed everything for them, and they’re not really ready to sacrifice everything for their own child.” This attitude, says Fong, is especially prevalent among those who feel they haven’t yet achieved enough success in their careers. “Getting married is seen as cutting off your own upward mobility, because you’re settling for the kind of spouse available to you based on your current socioeconomic status, rather than saving yourself for the better spouse you might meet once you attain higher status. Then having a child, which you’re expected to do, is accepting wherever you are as the place you will be for the rest of your life, because you’ll have to start investing most of your resources in your child rather than in your own upward mobility. You’ve pinned your hopes on the next generation.”
Fong believes the often-mentioned sense of unfulfilled potential among those in her study is the result of “rapid inflation of the actual cost of living, of educational credentials, and of what is seen as necessary to have a good life. When everyone – boy or girl, studious or not, rich family, poor family – has a diploma,” she notes, “the level of education that once guaranteed a good job no longer does.” For children raised to be professionals, Fong elaborates, “having a job at McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken, or working as a sales clerk at a store is no longer an acceptable outcome.”
Part of Fong’s current research is looking at individuals who pursue education abroad, which tends to carry more prestige in the Chinese job market. Young people who want to leapfrog over the competition for white-collar jobs are traveling to places such as England, Ireland, Japan, Australia, Malta, and the United States, either to study, work, or earn permanent residency status, which would enable them to travel more freely than they could as Chinese citizens. “As China continues its conversion from communism to neo-liberal global capitalism,” observes Fong, “one outcome is that now there is even inflation of foreign credentials. Chinese employers are no longer impressed that your English is flawless and that you have a degree from a Western university; they want to know if it is from a top-ranked Western university.”
For those in Fong’s study who have decided to start families, she sees evidence of a self-perpetuating preoccupation with all aspects of child rearing and education. “This generation of ‘perfect children’ is now trying to become ‘perfect parents,’” she says. “There is a proliferation of English-immersion preschools for toddlers.” For some parents-to-be, the quest for academic excellence begins even earlier. “It’s not unusual for expectant parents to be concerned about choosing the best techniques to educate their fetus,” reports Fong.
If this first generation of only-children seems to have bought into China’s societal transformation, Fong says it is more from a sense of inevitability than a belief in its efficacy. “Everyone – parents, kids, and teachers – hates the heightened competition the system creates,” she relates. “They think it’s a horrible way to live. But when the only alternative is a low-paying factory or service industry job, they believe it’s better to make unreasonable sacrifices so your kid can at least have a chance at a white-collar career.
“Economic inequalities are on the rise in China,” Fong ventures, “and if you fall, you can fall way down.”
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