When the Chinese government announced late last month that the almost four decade-long one-child policy was coming to an end, many rejoiced at the news that couples are now permitted to have two children. This is a major policy shift for a country that has sought to limit the continued growth of its enormous population to reduce increased pressure and dependence on natural resources and land. This policy, the first of its kind in human history, has served as a major social experiment within China’s longstanding and dynamic history. However, while the one-child policy has helped to better manage a population that has grown from nearly 600 million during World War II to over 1.3 billion in the present era, it has also given rise to many severe problems.
Because there were substantially fewer births under the one-child policy, China now faces a disproportionately aging population—with too few young people entering China’s workforce. Many experts believe that continued economic growth and infrastructural development in China depends on a balanced population into the future—something they fear the country currently lacks. Going forward, newly added industries and sectors may prove unsustainable, as China’s economic expansion may outpace the capacity of its workforce.
The economic considerations of this policy shift are complex. However, perhaps equally as complex, yet more subtle, are the social and psychological consequences of a policy that has restricted families from raising more than one child. The one-child policy spanned multiple generations—and has proven to have had noticeable impact on the fabric of China’s social infrastructure.
For example, every ounce of parental attention in China is devoted to one child, as young Chinese have received the material benefits of increased affluence throughout the nation. Spoiled with toys, technologies, extracurricular opportunities, and highly focused educational and tutorial options, these young people are enjoying specialized attention in a way the pre-1978 generation could have never dreamed. Yet, some of these children are so spoiled that they have actually lost touch with certain social realities. Frequently coined xiao huangdi, or “little emperors,” many of these young people have received so much personalized and undivided attention that they are unable to work well on teams or delegate opportunities to others in academic and professional environments.
Beyond the issue of a highly self-centered generation, China’s only children also face a subtler problem—loneliness. As huge swaths of Chinese citizens grow into adulthood, many now complain about a perpetual loneliness they have felt from the time they were quite young through the present. Unlike the era prior to the policy, during which time families often had up to five children each, this more recent generation of Chinese grew up in homes with only their parents. Given the highly regimented upbringing of Chinese youth—a generation that is part of a rapidly expanding middle class, with long school days and constant extra curricular activities—children have few opportunities to spend leisure time with their peers. Without other siblings in the home, these youngsters rarely have the chance to play with other young people and explore their social identity. Even as the policy comes to a close in 2015, for many of these only children, a character-embedded loneliness will be hard to shake into adulthood.
Unfortunately, when these only children enter into adulthood, loneliness is not the only issue they must deal with. Perhaps even more challenging is the enormous financial burden placed on these individuals to assist their aging parents. Without siblings with whom to share this responsibility, these only children can often be pressed financially as they seek to support their parents while also raising a family. This has led to an influx of assisted living facilities in China, a culturally Western import that has often been introduced to the chagrin of older Chinese. As living expenses continue to rise sharply in Chinese cities, on the basis of rapid economic development, these financial implications contribute to increased pressure on only children as they strive for a balanced lifestyle in adulthood.
These notable drawbacks have caused many of these only children, now adults, to describe themselves as a lost generation in China. Many feel tremendous resentment towards the government for placing such a restriction on their families and, subsequently, on their childhoods. They are upset to have been part of a social experiment that caused the only one-child-per-family generation in China’s 5,000-year history. As the policy comes to a close, many view it as a colossal mistake, as it has given rise to deep-seated social and psychological problems among many of China’s citizens.
However, Chinese social and economic scholars, recognizing the need for proper management of the country’s development, argue that the Chinese government had no choice but to enact such a policy. Indeed, despite the harsh consequences of the one-child policy, these experts may be right. China already deals with substantial development-based problems, such as scarce resources and horrific environmental conditions. Had China’s population numbers been multiplied over the past 40 years as its economy expanded so rapidly, the toll of China’s development on the planet’s environment would likely have been significantly worse—a scenario hard to fathom considering an already detrimental impact.
Regardless of the benefits and consequences, the one-child policy is no longer a factor—as each household is now permitted to have two children. Yet, economic realities caused by rising living costs may still prevent many of these couples from having more than one child. Though the one-child policy was always a legal requirement among citizens, over the years it has gradually evolved into an economic necessity for many. This causes concern as the current generation of child-bearers yearns to raise families that are larger than the ones in which they grew up.
With such economic realities at the forefront as the two-child policy is introduced, the future stability of China’s growth remains uncertain. Will economic constraints on Chinese society limit the country to a primarily only-child society for many years to come? Will China continue to experience social problems such as entitled children and overburdened and lonely adults? Will economic restrictions prevent enough births to fuel the continued development and expansion of China’s economy? Will young people seek to usher in national economic and social growth or continue to be inwardly focused?
The Chinese government has expanded the one-child policy to two children in an attempt to withstand some of these potentially detrimental future scenarios. However, taking into consideration many of the profound consequences the policy had during its 37-year existence, loosening its requirements in 2015 may prove futile in terms of recovering many of the social values already withering away. Nonetheless, as Chinese life and society continue to become more complex with a maturing economy, the new two-child policy is certainly a step in the right direction.
About the author:
David Solomon, a 2013 graduate of Skidmore College, lived in China for three years, where he pursued Mandarin language, history, political, and environmental studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Suzhou University. He has also worked in Chinese economic development and has traveled extensively throughout China and other parts of Asia. David currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works in U.S.-China trade relations.