One and Only?
Now that China's first generation under the one-child policy has come of age, was modernization worth the price?
They 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.
Modernization 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.
Great Expectations Proponents argue that the government's efforts to curb population -- China makes up one-fifth of the world's entire population -- seem, at least from a numbers standpoint, sensible. Chinese authorities claim that the policy has prevented about 250 to 300 million births. However, since one-child was set in motion, critics have called the policy "draconian," "crude," "horrid," "drastic" -- an intrusive policy that allows the state to strip individuals of the most intimate of human rights: the decision to have a baby. Fueled by stories of forced sterilizations, infanticide, child abandonment, and high rates of abortion (especially when the fetus is female), critics also say the policy has unfairly favored boys. A 2009 study in the British Medical Journal found that China had 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20. In rural areas where two children are allowed, there were 143 boys for 100 girls among children born second.
Critics also say the one-child policy is harsh because it unfairly unloads a huge burden on only children. Fong saw this firsthand when living in Dalian, a seaport city of about 6 million in northeastern China, while working on her dissertation during the late 1990s as an anthropology doctoral student at Harvard. In exchange for being allowed to observe students at home and in class, she took an unpaid job as an English tutor at three schools: vocational, junior high school, and college prep. Her goal was to learn as much as she could about China's singletons born after 1979.
What she found is that while most followed the rules -- they studied hard, invested in education, and sought high-paying careers -- following the rules came at a price. This first generation is under enormous pressure to succeed, not only for the country, but also for the family. As she points out in her book, quoting sociologist Viviana Zelizer, by the end of the 20th century, American children were "economically worthless but emotionally priceless." In contrast, only children in China, while also emotionally priceless, have become economically valuable.
In many Asian cultures with long histories of filial duty, children have always taken care of parents and extended family. A saying Fong often heard from Dalian parents was: yang er fang lao, or you raise a child to prepare for old age. And the government has used this sense of family duty to its advantage.
"The cultural model of filial duty remained one of the most salient aspects of China's Confucian legacy," Fong says. "Chinese leaders continued to promote this cultural model because it allowed the state to devote its resources to promoting economic growth instead of social security."
Today, however, there's a big difference. With previous generations, families had many children. One -- most often a son -- might go on to college or a professional career while siblings worked in lower-paying but respectable factory jobs. All of the children would take care of the extended family: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles,
and cousins; poorer siblings could rely on the more successful ones for support during difficult times.
That's no longer the case and it will continue to get worse. As The New York Times reported last July, by the year 2050, China will have 1.6 working-age adults to support every person over 60, compared with 7.7 in 1975.
"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. In the past, the whole family was the safety net. Now this generation of singletons is the safety net."
This is particularly difficult as parents and grandparents start to age. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reported last spring that by 2050, China would have more than 438 million people over the age of 60, with more than 100 million above 80. According to the World Bank, 71 percent of Chinese had access to state health facilities in 1981. A dozen years later, the figure dropped to 21 percent. Last October, The Washington Post reported that about 300 million people in China do not have any health insurance and that in 2005, out-of-pocket expenses for health care were more than 100 times what they were in 1980. Though the Chinese government is currently trying to expand health insurance and pension programs for its citizens, it faces challenges given the rising cost of living and health care.
The paradox, Fong says, is that advanced medical procedures and medications are now readily available for people in China, but only if singletons can afford to pay the costs. The message being sent loud and clear to this generation, she says, is that, "You can buy years of your parents' lives if you do well in life. Or you can not get that good job and not save your parents' lives. It literally makes the stakes life and death."
And parents fully recognize this. Parents "were painfully aware that their family had only one shot at a good future," Fong writes in her book. "Therefore, they did everything they could to make that shot a good one." During her time living in Dalian, she constantly witnessed parents and grandparents sacrificing -- depleting savings to pay for tutoring, sleeping on the floor while the singleton got a bed, and skipping meals so that the child could have more. This has added to the singleton's deep sense of pressure to do well in school, get an elite job, and be successful. They feel they must pay back the investment their families have made for all of their futures.
Learning Matters One area that has especially affected China's singletons -- in positive and not so positive ways -- is education. As author Ann Hulbert wrote in a New York Times Magazine article about the pressure Chinese students face, a child's education is a family endeavor.
"Parents whose own schooling was curtailed by the Cultural Revolution have been avid to realize their educational ambitions -- the Confucian key to social and moral advancement -- in the paths they chart for their 'little emperors,'" she wrote.
The number of families sending children abroad for college, not just graduate school, has sharply increased. The New York Times reported last November that China sent 98,510 students to American universities last year, a 21 percent increase since 2007. Guidebooks about how to get into prestigious Ivy League schools have become instant bestsellers in the country, with the authors and subjects becoming household names, such as Yiting Liu, whose parents wrote Harvard Girl in 2000. (The book, among other things, described how Liu's parents had her hold ice in her hands until they turned purple in order to improve her stamina.)
Fong says that even students from the three nonelite schools in Dalian where she observed and taught went abroad -- at least a third. "It's powerful," she says.
On a day-to-day basis, studying has become life for China's singletons. Few contribute to household labor, which had once been the norm, especially for girls, because it is seen as taking away from valuable study time. One father told Fong that he would shuttle snacks and drinks to his son while he studied so that he didn't have to waste time walking to the refrigerator. A mother put paste on her son's toothbrush every morning before he woke so that he could focus entirely on his lessons.
Fong says, "From 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m., students might be in school." High school students also attend on weekends and for part of the summer. "The culture really says all kids should be in school at all times. It's a lot of pressure."
Part of that has to do with the country's rigorous and all-important exams, the first given in junior high to determine what kind of high school you'll go to. Dalian's junior high exam in 1999 tested students on Chinese, math, a foreign language, physics, and chemistry.
"As a 15-year-old, how well you do on that exam determines your future socioeconomic life," Fong says. "And it's cumulative. Every bit of knowledge you've accumulated since birth is going to be tested."
Students take another high-stakes exam in high school, similar to the SAT, called gao kao, or high test, because it's so important. Fong says that just before exam time, talk of the test is heard everywhere -- on the streets, in houses, and in shops. Students who do well get into the country's top universities and colleges. Fong found that 66 percent of the teenagers she surveyed had been tutored in a foreign language in preparation for the exam, while 88 percent had been privately tutored or had taken private afterschool classes.
In an effort to keep students focused, Fong says distracting romances between students are widely discouraged and extracurricular activities are minimal. Few students play afterschool sports or join clubs like the student newspaper or drama. As one Dalian parent told his daughter who had just been accepted to a college prep high school, "Think of yourself as having entered a jail. From now on, you must focus entirely on your studies. Like a prisoner, you will not have any freedom to do the things you enjoy."
Girl Support Despite this, Fong says the emphasis on advanced learning has brought some positives to this generation. For starters, limited free time and tight supervision, while stressful, also means children tend to be less involved in negative activities; drug use among this age group is minimal and gangs are uncommon. Few have cars. Every child in China is also raised to value education, no matter where he or she comes from, poverty or wealth. Everyone has the potential to do better than the previous generation.
"There isn't this thinking that if your parents are poor, you're destined to be poor," she says. "The lower classes feel they can go up, especially if they invest a lot in their one child. The entire society is supposed to be upwardly mobile."
Another unintended benefit, perhaps one that Westerners would be the most surprised by, is that the one-child policy has allowed more girls to get a quality education.
"Urban daughters born under China's one-child policy have benefited from the demographic pattern produced by that policy," Fong writes in her 2002 paper, "China's One-Child Policy and the Empowerment of Urban Daughters." Although she acknowledges the "devastating effect of gender norms on daughters" who were born before 1979, and that China's social structure still has gender inequality, the absence of brothers has act
ually allowed girls to push the limits of the glass ceiling.
"Prior to the one-child policy, most girls were raised to be losers," she writes in her book. Males were favored because they passed on the family name and got better jobs that could better support the family; parents had little incentive to invest in daughters.
However, since one-child went into effect, singleton daughters have enjoyed unprecedented parental support because they do not have to compete.
"Low fertility enabled mothers to get paid work, and thus gain the ability to demonstrate their filiality by providing their own parents with financial support," Fong says. "Because their mothers have already proven that daughters can provide their parents with old age support, and because singletons have no brothers for their parents to favor, daughters have more power than ever before to defy disadvantageous gender norms while using equivocal ones to their own advantage."
Singleton Futures 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 9x9."
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."