One-child policy: A look inside the struggles and benefits of China’s ‘little emperor’ generation


I remember growing up and being told by my mother over and over again that I was her “only hope”.

Key points:

  • China’s one-child policy was introduced in 1979 to control population growth
  • There were exemptions to the policy, which officially ended in 2016
  • China now faces an ageing population and shrinking workforce

Being the only child, and part of an entire generation who missed out on a sibling because of China’s controversial one-child policy, I received my parents’ undivided attention and investment, both emotional and financial.

My parents, who were blue-collar workers in China, borrowed money from their families and relatives so that they could migrate to Australia and give me a chance at a better future.

While children like me are commonly dubbed “little emperors”, who are often spoilt because they do not need to compete with siblings, they also bear all the weight of their parents’ expectations.

Growing up, I experienced overwhelming pressure to excel academically and be admitted to university, an opportunity my parents never had because of interruptions to normal schooling during the Cultural Revolution.

Now as an adult, I feel I need to be successful in my career, knowing that the responsibility of looking after my ageing parents would fall on my shoulders alone.

China’s one child policy to be felt for decades

The expectation that adult children would take care of their parents is not only deeply ingrained in Asian culture, but part of the law in China and Singapore.

Many children provide financial support in working class families like mine, or ask their elderly parents to move in with them or closer to where they live.

Couples who are both only children face the daunting prospect of eventually taking care of four dependent parents.

Two years on, after China’s one child policy was replaced by a two-child policy in January 2016, many couples are still thinking twice about having a second child because of economic pressures and delaying marriage.

China’s family planning commission has revealed the country’s birth rate dropped by 3.5 per cent last year, with just over 17 million new babies born in mainland China in 2017.

Figures published by the China Association of Social Security last year showed China’s elderly population is expected to reach 400 million by the end of 2035.

China’s ageing population is just one consequence of the one-child policy introduced by the Government in 1979, which limited many couples to having only one child or face hefty fines and other punishments.

The policy was aimed to control the population explosion in the decades after the Communist Party came into power in 1949, when Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged large families, and condemned birth control, to boost manpower.

There were a variety of exemptions to the policy, and rules were eventually loosened in different parts of the country.

The policy was finally scrapped at the start of 2016, allowing for all couples to have two children as the country attempts to cope with an ageing population and shrinking workforce.

Salvatore Babones, an associate professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney, said the one-child policy caused the fertility rate — which was already declining during the Cultural Revolution — to drop more rapidly.

China’s fertility rate is sitting between 1.3 and 1.7 children born per woman depending on the source of the information, Professor Babones said, adding that they were unlikely to bounce back up.

Children given opportunity their parents never had

Many couples in China cite the steep cost of education, including private tutoring, and pressures of raising children in a highly competitive society as reasons not to have a second child.

Some parents, like mine, make the decision to migrate to Western countries because they don’t want to subject their children to China’s pressure cooker education system.

But my parents continued to heap pressure on me after we migrated to Sydney in 1996. I received countless hours of tutoring, and was pressured into practising piano for at least an hour every day during high school.

My education has always been my mother’s top priority, because she grew up during a time when attending university was a privilege only for those who were incredibly smart, or could afford self-education textbooks worth about a month’s salary.

My mother said she hoped I could “make up for her regret” of not having enough resources to study as well as she could, and worked odd jobs including waitressing and babysitting to fund everything I needed to get into a good university.

Although my parents could have had a second child after migrating to Australia, my mother said she wouldn’t have been able to afford to give me those same opportunities if I had a sibling.

Wealth funnelled into one generation

China’s one-child policy created a “four grandparents, two parents and one child” family configuration, and was responsible for skewing the gender ratio in favour of men.

The one-child policy also created a doubling-up effect of wealth, created during China’s economic growth or accumulated by the parents, which is eventually inherited by their only child.

This is especially profound in families where the mother and father are themselves only children, and their offspring marries another offspring also from a family where the parents are only children.

The next generation ends up inheriting all wealth from both sides of the family.

This phenomenon has led to significant wealth liquidity among many young families, and a growing generation of people who are financially better off than the previous generation.

Compared to the past, when China’s household registration system kept people near their parents and people were poorer, Professor Babones believes adult children are now less likely to live with their parents.

“It’s a cultural ideal [to live with parents] but its practical realities have changed that,” he said.

By Christina Zhou
ABC News


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