China’s One-Child Policy: Curse of the ‘Little Emperors’

Thirty-four years after the start of a radical experiment in population control, China is paying a high price

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Tim Klein / Gallery Stock

China is a colossal country and, as befits such a global powerhouse, it has made some colossal mistakes. Take its infamous one-child policy, implemented in 1979 and condemned from that day forward. A new study released in Science makes it clear just how misguided the idea was.

Initially, the policy seemed to make a cold kind of sense: the country’s population growth was out of control, leaping nearly 75% from 1949 to 1976; its per capita income was about 300 yuan, or just over $48, and families with multiple children had nowhere near enough money to raise them well. Why not just clamp down on all the prodigious baby making and solve both problems at once?

Thirty-four years later, the planners can claim a crude victory. China’s economy has boomed, and its 1.34 billion population is estimated to be about 15% smaller than it would have been otherwise. But that means that 250 million Chinese babies who would have been born never were. Until 2004, when the practice of sex-selective abortion was banned, millions of girls were aborted to satisfy China’s traditional preference for boys; and as a result of that gender bias, there are 32 million more marriage-age men in the country than there are women, according to the British Medical Journal.

(MORE: Sibling Rivalry: Squabbling May Lead to Depressive Symptoms, Anxiety Among Teens)

Lost in all those troubling numbers is what’s become of the singletons themselves. Just 27% of those born in China in 1975 were only children; in 1983, it was 91%. When you’re your parents’ one shot at a genetic legacy, you may get to attend all the best schools, wear all the best clothes and eat all the best foods — at least relative to children in multiple-sibling households. But you also wind up with an overweening sense of your own importance. For years now, Chinese parents and teachers have lamented what’s known as the xiao huangdi — or little emperor — phenomenon, a generation of pampered and entitled children who believe they sit at the center of the social universe because that’s exactly how they’ve been treated.

In 2004, Fortune magazine explored the problem, interviewing teachers and employers who complained that one-child-policy babies never learn how to “eat bitterness” — or cope with disappointment and frustrations in ways that would better prepare them for life. Said one kindergarten director:

Kids these days are spoiled rotten. They have no social skills. They expect instant gratification. They’re attended to hand and foot by adults so protective that if the child as much as stumbles, the whole family will curse the ground.

In China today, some employers have gone so far as to specify “no single children” in job postings. In 2010, one branch of government, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, called on party leadership to abandon the one-child policy — a surprising bit of bureaucratic assertiveness in so top-down a country.

(MORE: The New Science of Siblings)

But is the little-emperor label fair? As I reported in my book The Sibling Effect, most studies show that in the U.S., only children don’t suffer from their singleton status and even typically wind up outperforming other children on a range of measures, including vocabulary, academic performance, sense of humor, the ability to focus on tasks and — never mind the stereotypes — getting along with others. But those are kids who grow up in a culture with a whole mix of family types, who learn that whatever extra pampering they get from their parents is not what all kids get, and that they’re no more entitled to privilege than anyone else. In the singleton hothouse of China, the Science paper makes clear, things are very different.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers from various Australian universities, compared 421 young adults in China divided into two groups: those born just before the one-child policy was imposed and those born just after. The oldest members of the sample group were 37, the youngest were 29.

The investigators asked the subjects to play four social-experiment games known as the dictator game, the trust game, the risk game and the competition game. In the dictator game, participants are paired off with an anonymous partner, and one is given the equivalent of $30 and allowed to give any, or none, of that amount to the other partner and keep the rest. Then they are paired with new anonymous partners and the roles are reversed. The trust game involves something similar, but the giver sends either no money or whatever money he decides to part with to the receiver, and the receiver then has the opportunity to give some of it back to the same person. In the risk game, individual participants are given a sum of money and allowed to wager as much or as little as they want on a coin flip that has a 50-50 chance of either tripling their bet or leaving them with nothing. Finally, the competition game requires subjects to perform a mathematical exercise — adding up randomly generated numbers while being graded for speed and accuracy. They have the choice of either being paid a small amount for every correct answer or 10 times that amount if they compete with another player in the room and win. If they lose, they get nothing.

In two of the four tasks, the one-child subjects behaved just as would be expected of an entitled, narcissistic birth cohort. They were less generous in the dictator game, passing on 40.1% of the money, compared with the 43.4% those born before the one-child policy gave away. In the trust game, they both sent less to the other player (46.1% vs. 50.6%) and returned less (30.4% vs. 35.4%) — figures suggesting a lack of faith that any altruistic behavior on their part would be reciprocated.

(MORE: The Power of Birth Order)

The other two results were a bit harder to parse: the one-child subjects were less competitive than those born earlier, with 44.2% of them choosing to compete in the math exercises, compared with 51.8%. The only children also scored lower in the risk game, with 58.1% wagering triple or nothing on the coin flips, compared with 66.4% of those with siblings. But in neither case, the researchers found, were those choices signs of healthy humility and cautious wisdom. Rather, they were simply symptoms of pessimism — and worse.

In personality tests administered after the games, one-child subjects scored much lower when asked to rate, on a scale of 0 to 100, whether they believed the sun would be shining the next day. In a 44-question personality survey, they also scored worse on a whole range of metrics including agreeableness, openness, extraversion, neuroticism and pessimism again. All this, the researchers concluded, “is consistent with the finding that positive sibling relationships moderate the relationship between stressful life events and internalizing behaviors.”

The hard irony for the parents of one-child-policy offspring — to say nothing of those singletons themselves — is that the entire suite of less adaptive traits they exhibit in the study not only doesn’t improve their prospects in life but actually diminishes them. Every one of those attributes has been linked directly to poorer outcomes in educational and professional achievement, individual health and stability in marriage. The one-child policy, which the researchers call “one of the most radical approaches to limiting population growth,” has in all respects, except the mere birthrate numbers, been a hash of unintended consequences.

For now, the one-child policy is still in place, but like any such ill-considered experiment in social engineering, it is being increasingly flouted, especially outside major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Even senior communist officials have suggested that the rule could be scrapped as soon as 2015. That would be a welcome — and long overdue — change, as one more regime learns one more time that there are some places policymakers simply shouldn’t tread.

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16 comments
ScebberishUmfazi
ScebberishUmfazi

I am married to a Chinese woman with a Chinese son from her previous marriage, and believe me the problem is far far worse than these articles suggest. The child is 14 and I am not allowed to speak to him directly, I have to speak through his mother. At 11 years old when I met her she still used to wipe his backside in the toilet as he would just sit there and shout that he is finished. I am about to throw him out, and his mother too if she does not agree to put him in boarding school.

theonethatgotaway
theonethatgotaway

Oh well, at least the only boys won't have ball-breaking sisters that sabotage their love-based relationships so they can be married off like stock animals to families that can offer enough wealth and class status to make the loveless marriage a worthwhile business venture ;-)

LayneZeiler
LayneZeiler

I taught English to children in China and will never do it again. In fact, foreign teachers who do agree to teach children usually don't last long, with their chief complaint being the little emperor syndrome in boys. The first crops of little emperors are in the adult stage now, and it's easy to sense the bitterness that exists toward them in society. However, this problem is going to get much worse, and it will last for a very long time.    

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

What then is the reason for this behavior in the US?  I've known many people that act the same way as described here for Chinese kids.  "Spoiled, immature, unwilling to bend even the slightest" describes the young co workers I have.  I'm not convinced that this has anything to do with the one child rule, but more to do with how society is changing (everyone wins prizes even when they lose, no one gets left behind, everyone is a "star", discipline is rare).   Used to be that if you corrected your neighbors kid you were thanked, now you are accused of something.

survey4kp
survey4kp

I don't need tests to know the "little emperor" sydrome is real. I and many of my friends have hosted exchange students  for many years. We all know not to take on a Chinese male. They are spoiled, immature, and unwilling to bend even the slightest to get along with the host family. They refuse to clean up after themselves and expect to be waited on hand and foot.

Portela
Portela

What are the std deviations for each of the tests?  By analyzing those, we can debunk whether or not the tests actually prove anything.  It's simple statistics.

ProfBob
ProfBob

A couple of thoughts on the article. The Chinese government a few years ago said that more than 400 million babies have not been born. This of course increases the amount of money available for education at every level, and now for retirement benefits – – as little as they are. That test on trust, which may have been validated in Australia, is certainly to be questioned in a quite different country.

 The one child policy is one of the most courageous and needed policies in the world. There is no question that there are far too many people. Dr. Pimentel at Cornell, one of the authorities in the area, suggests and 1.5. billion people is all the world can handle if we are to live  after the level of Western countries. Every economist knows that to compete today economically we must have a large number of high level engineers, physicists and chemists. China is doing that. If we are to look at society as a whole, they seem to be doing many more things right than we are in the West.

The abortions or infanticides of female babies is really stupid, but it is a tradition in China and India. As a father, Howard for more rather have female children than males. The adult females in China that I have talked to are quite happy with their chances for education and the fact that they no longer have to be stay-at-home mothers. A number of Chinese woman have achieved at that high levels both economically and academically. Perhaps the writer should spend some time in China interviewing younger Chinese women. It doesn't read true in China, as in the US, that only children may become more selfish. Although studies are not agreed on this.

KatLewis
KatLewis

Gendercide (the selective killing of girls, a brutal consequence of the One-Child Policy) definitely did not end after sex-selective abortion was banned in 2004. 

The ban is not enforced. It's pretty easy to get a gender-determining ultrasound in China and the gender ratios at birth are still drastically skewed.

The skewed gender ratio at birth only lessened slightly in recent years, and it's still around 117 boys: 100 girls (down from the 120 boys: 100 girls high in 2005, but well above the natural ratio of 103-105 boys: 100 girls). Do the math. As long as the policy remains in place and Chinese parents prefer sons, millions of girls will be lost.

charles
charles

the analysis is totally one-sided BS. Recent generations of mainland Chinese are traditionally (and probably genetically) more inclined to risk-taking, due to the last several centuries dire and unstable Chinese social-economic environment. Just look at the disportionate Chinese populace in any of the casinos in the entire world!

if the next generation of young Chinese reining in the Chinese gambling spirits and bringing more rationality and logical thinking, then by all means, it will be immensely good for the future of the Chinese nation. it has almost nothing to do with the one-child policy, but everything to do with the dramatically improving and stable social-economic environments.

rihannk
rihannk

I think it is a world wide phenomenon that parents are investing more time and money in their kids than ever before.  Think of the whole "helicopter parenting" label in Western countries.  To link it with the one child policy is not necessarily fair.  I think it has more to do with China's intense internal competition for everything.  The ultimate job in China is to land a government job.  The fight for the top jobs starts from the day the child is born.  He/She has to go to the right school to get into the right university to ultimately be in count to get the cushy government job.

.  

mileover
mileover

I am not sure why that would be 'overdue' other than for religious or traditional reasons. It is difficult to believe that the children truly scored so badly on such a slew of tests. One should check these findings again. In any case, the facts speak for themselves, considering their economic growth and rise in personal welfare. Compare this to Africa, where no such practices have been implemented. 


If you are so drived by concern for the welfare of the population, and not by religion, would you then condemn the practices in countries where the involvement of the church and mosque lead to large population increases that in turn lead to a desperate competition?

ich1banF40
ich1banF40

@LayneZeiler >>>>>> I too taught in China for a semester abroad at a private school (which presumes connotations to westerners as being good). Public schools in China are the ones with all the funding, so this is sort of a flip flop from western countries in terms of academic excellence, where you will normally find this at a private school or homeschoolers in America more so than at an average public school. 

Anyways, to make a long story short, I met some fantastic kids that really did care about me, but I have to say more than 8 or 9 out of 10 kids were extremely obnoxious. I never was able to conduct a lesson without the kids being extremely disruptive, even after I implemented all the rules and tactics from veterans. The average age at the school was about 12 or 13 and the average smoker was about 13 or 14. 

Everyday there were about 20 or 30 cigarette butts in each toilet on every level of the school (4 stories high). These kids came mostly from wealthier families that could not achieve scores high enough for the "KEY" high schools, so they were sent here. 

My goodness, now I know why I always disliked single children in America (on average).

ich1banF40
ich1banF40

@notLostInSpace .... No, you have no idea until you actually go there and involved yourself with them. There are obnoxious kids in america too with the whole "me generation" but it is exemplified and brought to a new level of understanding in china. 

What you don't understand is that there are a lot more 1 child families in china than the US, so those nasty effects that we often see in 1 child families in the US are multiplied in china. It's like biomagnification in shrimp, except in china when all the 1 child kids are 90% of your classroom, the effects are magnified 10 fold. 

You really have no idea, until you actually teach there.

survey4kp
survey4kp

It's even more surprising given the Chinese tradition of respect for elders. That has been completely lost since the one-child policy, as far as I can tell.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

I'm not trying to win  a "who is worst" argument, merely pointing out the logic flaw.  The kids here are not one child families.