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Women Born to China's One-Child Policy
An Interview with Assistant Professor Vanessa Fong

Harvard Graduate School of Education

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Assistant Professor Vanessa Fong
Assistant Professor Vanessa Fong  

Trained as an anthropologist, Assistant Professor Vanessa Fong examines how the experiences of families of only children in China shed light on theories of gender, migration, citizenship, nationalism, transnationalism, globalization, education, human development, political economy, demographic anthropology, and psychological anthropology. In this interview, Fong discusses her ongoing research of the educational and professional experiences of young people born under China's one-child policy.

Q: Given that you have already completed a great deal of research on gender and education in China, have you started to ask any research questions that you did not initially consider? Do you have any ideas about the directions that your research will take in the future?

A: When I first started my research, my main question was about the effects of the one-child policy on gender roles. This question led me to consider the complex relationships between gender and other factors, such as age, generation, family size, childrearing methods, academic achievement, socioeconomic background, political economy, national identity, and globalization. Now I'm paying attention to how all these factors interact to shape the experiences of only children in China as they try to bring their families and society into the First World.

My current plan is to follow the only children at the center of my research as they move through the life course. The shape of my research will be determined by what they do with their lives. Some of the only children I know from my previous research are pursuing further education in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, so now I'm focusing on issues of migration, transnationalism, and citizenship. At the same time, I'm looking at how members of their generation—both in China and abroad—deal with stratification, pursue work and careers, experience sexuality, romance, and marriage, establish cultural, national, and political identities, make decisions about fertility, raise children of their own, and try to provide economic support and medical care for their aging parents. Because my study is longitudinal, I'll be able to place the adult experiences of this generation in the context of the hopes, fears, and socialization experiences of their childhood and adolescence.

Daughters who are only children, however, enjoy unprecedented parental support because they do not have to compete with brothers for parental investment.

Q: How has China’s one-child policy empowered women, especially from an educational perspective? More specifically, what is happening under the one-child policy that might not have happened with urbanization alone?

A: In the system of patrilineal kinship that has long characterized most of Chinese society, parents had little incentive to invest in their daughters’ education or careers. Daughters who are only children, however, enjoy unprecedented parental support because they do not have to compete with brothers for parental investment. Global processes of industrialization, modernization, and urbanization could have caused a fertility transition in Chinese cities even without a one-child policy. But such a transition would probably have occurred more slowly, and produced fewer brotherless daughters, than the transition mandated by the one-child policy.

Q: Can you explain the glass floor/glass ceiling phenomenon? What are the benefits and downfalls for the women caught between these two barriers?

A: Urban Chinese women face a glass ceiling produced by their extra burden of domestic responsibility, by gender norms that favor men in elite professions, and by inequalities between elite husbands and their less elite wives. But urban Chinese women also enjoy the protection of a glass floor created by the marriage system, by gender norms that favor non-elite women in the educational system, and by the rapidly expanding market for feminine jobs in the service and light industry sectors. This “glass floor” makes it less likely that women will sink to the bottom of society, into poverty, crime, and unemployment. Men have neither the obstacle of the “glass ceiling” nor the protection of the “glass floor.” While elite men are more likely than their female counterparts to rise to the top of their society, non-elite men are also more likely than their female counterparts to fall to the bottom. For academically unsuccessful daughters of poor parents, gender norms provide a means of upward mobility through marriage and/or job markets unavailable to their male counterparts.

Q: Unlike women, men seem able to break through the glass ceiling and drop through the glass floor. Do you think it’s possible to construct a “glass floor” for men, without jeopardizing the recent advances made by women?

A: Yes, I think it would be possible for men as well as women to be protected if economic growth and/or government policies result in full employment and declines in socioeconomic inequalities. But that's unlikely under current conditions, since unemployment and inequality seem to be increasing rather than declining in China and in the capitalist world system as a whole.

Q: What are some of the challenges of attaining the data for your research? How do you follow over 2000 junior-high-school and high-school students for an extended period of time?

A: The biggest challenge is that there’s never as much time as I would like to meet more people in the generation I’m studying, or to keep in touch with the ones that I already know. I haven’t been able to maintain contact with most of the 2,273 students in my survey sample, but I have kept in touch with 31 students and their families by visiting them when I’m in China and by calling and e-mailing them when I’m in the U.S. They keep me posted about issues that affect their generation.

In a few years, I hope to conduct a follow-up survey of the 2,273 students in my original sample. Chinese classmates often develop lifelong friendships with each other because they spend 9-13 hours a day and 5-6 days a week together, with the same 40-60 classmates for all three years of high school or junior high school. Most of the students in my original survey sample gave me their home phone numbers, and so I’m hoping that the ones I manage to track down will help me find the ones who have moved.

For More Information
More information about Vanessa Fong is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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