One and Only?By admin
More than 12 years after she started her research on the teenagers of Dalian, “Teacher Fong,” as she became known, continues to track where they are and how the policy has affected them. Almost every summer since she left in 1999, she has gone back for a reunion. The gatherings are partly social, a way to reconnect with old friends, but also a chance to continue observing her subjects, now in their 20s, and to expand on her original research. As an anthropologist, this has become a gold mine for Fong; she now has a deep catalog of information about this first generation. Initially, in addition to observing, she also conducted a survey of 2,273 teenagers in 1999 (average age 16 at the time), which focused on their attitudes, educational histories, family structures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and interactions with parents. She has since compiled updated information from about 1,000 of the original group — what their college experiences were like, where they work, how their original choices affected their education, and so on. Eventually she hopes to get updates from all 2,273.
“A longitudinal study can uncover things that you can’t when you do a shorter study one time,” Fong says. “I actually have data on the decisions these young people made 10 years ago. It’s great not to have to rely on just their memories.”
One new area that currently interests Fong is how this first generation of singletons is choosing to parent. She has starting tracking their children and will continue to do so every two years starting at age two. Currently, the oldest is about four. This second generation under the policy will eventually be given the same survey that their parents got when they were teenagers.
“A lot of the kids, when they were kids, would say they’d never pressure their own children the way they were pressured,” she says. “They would let their kids play and sleep more, not study 20 hours a day. They often told me these fantasies about how they would raise their children differently.”
But she’s finding that many are ambivalent — a feeling that reflects the nation’s overall feelings about the policy three decades later.
“Some say they were lonely as only children,” Fong says. “Some of the students from poorer families say that with limited resources, they are glad they didn’t have a sibling and now they don’t want their child to go without. Some who initially resisted say, ‘My parents meant well,’ and they appreciate them.”
Others are starting to follow the same patterns — but even earlier.
“Some in this generation of ‘perfect children’ now want to be ‘perfect parents,’” she says. “Some mothers can get their two-year-olds to recite the entire English alphabet, count to 100, read more than 100 Chinese characters, speak more than 60 words in English, recite 10 Tang-era Chinese poems, and recite the multiplication table up to 9×9.”
Moving forward, Fong’s research could help officials in China as they struggle with the decision to end, or at least alter, the one-child policy, as has been widely reported in the media recently. In addition to nervousness about an aging population and no safety net, there are also labor concerns. Factories are reporting a shortage in the number of young people willing or able to work. There are also not enough white-collar jobs for every young person as they assumed there would be after studying and sacrificing hard their whole lives.
In February, the China Daily reported that Zhao Baige, deputy director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said the policy would “remain unaltered.”
In some ways, says Harvard Professor James Watson, a China scholar and Fong’s dissertation advisor, the government’s decision is almost irrelevant at this point.
“The Chinese government is resisting the obvious need to relax or stop the single-child policy, but it doesn’t really matter what the government does,” he says. “Urbanites are not interested in large families and the biggest problem facing China, as well as Korea and Japan, is a general decline of fertility, especially among the professional classes. Taiwan and Hong Kong, two Chinese territories without birth regulation policies, have the lowest fertility rates in the world. The single-child family policy is a relic of the Cold War and when it finally ends, no one will even notice.”
More than 30 years after the policy was implemented, Fong says one child is now part of the culture in China.
“Many singletons will not want to even have one child, or certainly not more than one or two,” she says. “They tell me about how expensive it was for their parents, especially education. There is virtually no financial aid in China and lots of people feel they need to hire tutors and extra help. In addition, long years of schooling delay marriage and childbearing, Fong points out, especially for women, and not just in China.
“The government is watching this generation carefully,” she says. “Once they see that this generation isn’t going to start having a lot of children, they will let the policy go. It costs them a lot of bad press.”