ED. Magazine

One and Only?


Now that ’s first generation under the has come of age, was modernization worth the price?

one_child_illustration.jpgThey started out as just one part of China’s ambitious and controversial social experiment to modernize the country by reducing the population. As only children, they were to reap the rewards of a smaller nation and, in turn, smaller families, to become a super-educated, perfect generation.

Now grown and starting to have children of their own, China’s first generation under the state-mandated one-child policy that began in 1979 has become so much more. As Associate Professor Vanessa Fong reveals in her ongoing study of China’s singletons, as they are often called, this group of young people have unintentionally become the nation’s social safety net. On top of that already crushing burden, they have become their parents’ one and only hope.

This wasn’t the policy’s intended outcome. Initially, the decision during the late 1970s by the ruling Communist Party to set a baby quota for each couple was meant to counter the population boom that had occurred following the nation’s official independence as the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the 1950s, the thinking was: more people = more production.

“A larger population means greater manpower,” said Hu Yaobang, an official of the Communist Youth League, at a national conference of youth worker representatives in 1958. “The force of 600 million liberated people is tens of thousands of times stronger than a nuclear explosion.”

However, before long, this force of liberated people started to put a strain on the growing country, particularly its dwindling food supply. In an effort to rapidly convert the country from a peasant agrarian society to a modern industrial one, Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward had pulled millions of people away from farms to build roads, canals, railroads, and steel plants. From about 1958 to 1961, an estimated 30 million people died from starvation. Fong says government officials have avoided saying that overpopulation caused the famine, which they actually refer to as the “Three Years of Natural Disasters,” but nevertheless, they reversed course and started pushing for a smaller population.

Part of this new push included promoting the idea that fewer people would lead to a better standard of living, and higher quality, or suzhi, for everyone. As Fong writes in her 2004 book, Only Hope, fewer people would give each person a larger share of national resources: jobs, housing, food, water, and land. It would also allow the country to continue moving toward a modern economy but without the heavy strain encountered earlier. Fong says that in order to achieve equality with dominant, capitalistic countries like the United States, officials also pushed the idea that the country needed to become a center of finance and technology — not just provide cheap labor, as it had been doing. This meant more highly educated professionals, not more farmers or factory workers.

In order to do this, families would need to devote everything to their singleton, which they could easily do, they were told, since they only had one to worry about.

“Singletons who had family resources all to themselves would be healthier, wealthier, and better educated than siblings who had to compete with each other for parental investment,” Fong says the theory went.

At first, fertility limitation was voluntary, with slogans like “Late, Long, and Few.” Families were allowed two children, Fong writes, and the policy was not rigorously enforced. Stricter enforcement began in 1979 when the government cut the number to one child for urban couples. (Exceptions were made in some areas for rural couples, ethnic minorities, and parents without siblings.) The government also set a total population goal of no more than 1.2 billion by the year 2000. At the time, China’s population was about 975 million. (In 2000 they came close: that year, population reached 1.27 billion. China’s population today is 1.33 billion with India not far behind at 1.17 billion. In third is the United States at 308 million.) After the policy was implemented, those who did not comply were fined, stripped of jobs, and denied rations for the prohibited baby. Those who signed a pledge and followed the one-child rule were rewarded with a longer maternity leave, a health care allowance, priority for nursery school, and preferential housing. Contraceptives, abortions, and sterilization procedures are subsidized in the country.

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  • wu di

    as a chinese one-child policy student,this passage press me profound in its insightful thinking


    Dear sirs
    This article is useful for my academic courses of sociology of education in my University. In order to give more difussion, carefully call you for obtain authorization for traslate into spanish and public it in a spanish periodic review.

  • Celyse Drew-Robinson

    This article kept me engaged, and eager learn more about the focus topic… I found myself, after my reading, wondering how this policy could affect America… I considered, if only America could prioritize education in the way that the Chinese see educational importance…. would this change our economy? Would the effects be positive? How could it be negative? With healthcare and social security [that china is in need of] we have as a safety net, there would not be pressure on children; relieving the misread “stress & burden” of higher education in generations to come. If we set a generation-long goal of changing how our population perceives education, would we, could we have a nation full of scholars by 2020? Would there be an increase or decrease in white-collar careers? These and many more questions entered, and remained on my mind… I wonder if we began changing one city at a time, then one state, then the Nation… stressing importance of education to children, and even, in many sad cases, their own Parents, we could create ambassadors for education, which would improve the livelihood of generations to come. We could create a chain reaction, of well-educated, successful, and financially stable adults, who know the importance of education, and would pass this along to their children, who would then pass along to their children the same… this could create less need for financial aid, relieving the government, easing taxes, creating more jobs, more professionals filling those jobs… Many more opportunities, less poverty, more working adults, and less need for welfare…The result would be less crime, and, as stated in the article, gangs and crime are almost non-apparent… Would this domino-effect of educational importance sculpt into what could be… a Perfect America?

  • Qiao Wang

    “They would let their kids play and sleep more, not study 20 hours a day.” “There is virtually no financial aid in China and lots of people feel they need to hire tutors and extra help.”
    Not true. Never expect a scholar to exaggerate like this for attention.

  • Shawn Mathew Kailath

    China’s one-child-policy is understandable with the country struggling to increase production of consumer goods and to feed a booming population. Although it was intended to bring about a decline in population and better living standards even the ‘positive effects’ of the policy are not decisively positive.
    The policy has laid a huge burden on the future generation to sustain their family after retirement. Even having an elder sibling is not taking the stress from younger ones in today’s world. And the concept of “Super Parents”? I beg to differ. Teaching children at the tender age of two to learn might produce a prodigy before teenage but is absolutely unnecessary. The child might be born into a world of cut-throat competition. However, such awareness and premature intellectual preparation will eventually lead to increased stress and other health issues.
    China can help its people by schemes which include reusing and recycling waste. Undoubtedly, despite growing pressures on arable land the world over, food chains and restaurants are still throwing away excess food. By checking such wasteful practices, it is possible to achieve China’s intended sustenance.
    The Chinese government should understand that the earth was made for mankind to ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish and subdue’(BIBLE) and not conversely. The earth can sustain its population although the numbers apparently imply unsustainable growth and hence, increasing needs. One child policy has to be revamped. No second thoughts.

  • Xin Zhang

    As a the only child of my family, I sometimes feel lonely and stressful, but in most cases, I feel very lucky to be on my own.

  • Nan

    This is a wonderful article,which inspires me to think more. As a member of the singleton generation in China, I’ve totally experienced the same growth process. Something I came to realize in recent years is that parents of singletons will never let them go. My personal story and ones heard from my friends told me that parents will continue to be playing an influencing role even after their child’s formal schooling. They still feel responsible to be involved in decision-making about their child’s career selection, dating mate choice and even child rearing decision.

  • Christopher von Spitzer

    Thanks for writing a thoughtful and informative article Lory. I’m currently teaching English in Beijing, China (as well as been a teacher in America) and I question what kind of impact this rigorous and pressured (test-test-test) education process will have for these Chinese singletons’ life in the future? (Where in society, creativity and EQ skills are becoming more and more valuable than ever before…)
    I have witnessed first-hand quite an extreme educational process here in China that I didn’t see in teaching in America. Time will only tell.

  • Heng Li

    This is not a scholarly article.Besides,what has been made clear is the parent’s good intention. I don’t think the author has focused on exaggerating the study hours. As for tutoring and financial aid,I should say that both depend on the child’s family economical status.Well-off families,or at least those not struggling with survival,are more than willing to pay for one or even multiple private tutors;worse-off families may receive some allowance for their college perspective kids but fund-raising sometimes is done through media so that college tuition is collected through social resources.

  • 文博

    I THINK SO .It is a good passager about our China.

  • George Tyler

    —”In the United States, there are pressures for only children — you may be your parents’ pride and joy,” Fong says, “but most families here have retirement funds, social security, health care, Medicare, Medicaid, and so on. In China, there isn’t a social safety net. No social security, no pensions, no widespread health insurance.”
    Not true anymore. Our pension funds are shrinking and the great majority of seniors can’t afford insurance on their own. And while there isn’t widespread insurance in China, going to the doctor and medication is definitely a heck lot cheaper there. Moreover, the retirement age there is lower and urban workers get a generous monthly payment from the government now.

  • Kong KaiLi

    We are parents of a 14 year old Chinese girl adopted at 11 months old. Because of one child policy she was left in front of hospital For us, she is the greatest gift in the world. We think of her Chinese family often. Do they miss her? Think of her? Wonder if she is okay? Since then I have devoted my life to study of Chinese language and culture, trying to encourage my daughter to do the same. She wants to be an “American girl” with blond hair, blue eyes, but my Chinese friends tell me to stand firm, she will thank me. Time will tell. Xin Nian Kuai Le!

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