One-Child Policy Accused of Breeding Mistrust

An Australian study published last week attempts to quantify the psychological effects of the “one-child policy” on those born under it, who have often been disparaged as a generation of spoiled “Little Emperors”. Its findings may bode ill for the future of Chinese business and society. From Bloomberg News:

Using surveys of 421 men and women in Beijing and testing their skills in economic games, researchers in Australia found those born after the 1979 policy were more pessimistic, nervous, less conscientious, less competitive and more risk averse. They also found them to be 23 percent less prone to choose an occupation that entails business risk, such as becoming a stockbroker, entrepreneur or private firm manager.

[…] Xin Meng, a co-author of the study who grew up in Beijing and left China in 1988, said she detects a different behavioral attitude among the only-child population compared with the previous generation. A 2011 incident where a two-year-old girl in southern China died after she was struck by two vans and ignored by 18 passersby caused a furor, with domestic media and Internet users criticizing Chinese society for a lack of morality.

“An incident like this is just unthinkable 20 years ago,” said Meng, a professor of economics at the Australian National University in Canberra. “If you’ve lived in the Chinese society for a long time, you can sense the difference as people become more individualistic.”

Lisa Cameron, another of the study’s authors, discussed the findings (PDF transcript) with Sarah Crespi on the Science magazine podcast.

Some have expressed reservations about the study, however. From Rebecca Morelle at the BBC:

Professor Stuart West, from the University of Oxford, said the study was “very interesting”.

However, he cautioned against some of the conclusions that had been drawn.

He explained: “They are making very strong claims about differences in behaviour for people born before or after 1979, and they are inferring it is all to do with the introduction of the one child policy in that year.

“The problem is that is a potential explanation for that data – but there are almost an infinite number of other explanations of anything else that could have varied with time: variation of socio-economic environment, prosperity, nutrition, political environment – anything.”

And from Louise Watt at the Associated Press:

Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas in Austin who studies these children, was puzzled that the study’s findings showed poor performance so consistently in virtually all measures. She said she would have expected a more mixed picture, and she hopes follow-up research is done.

[…] Careful studies done elsewhere that look for certain qualities in the only child find that “on average, they’re pretty much like everybody else,” she said.

A recent survey of 51,100 people by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences supports the idea that Chinese society lacks trust, according to Xinhua. Its authors, though, point to a wider range of contributing factors including migration.

The Chinese public was given a “trust score” of just 59.7 points out of a total of 100, according to the results of the CASS survey conducted among residents in seven cities, including Beijing, east China’s Shanghai, south China’s Guangzhou, central China’s Wuhan and southwest China’s Chongqing municipalities.

The survey showed that residents in China’s central and western regions tend to trust others more than their eastern counterparts.

[…] Yang Yiyin, one of the survey’s organizers, attributed the lack of trust to migration, China’s transformation from a planned economy to a market economy and declining “family culture.”

“People are more concerned about trust, especially in a transformative period when a new system of trust has not been established,” said Yang.

Migration would not account for differences between the Australian study’s native Beijingers, but its role in loosening the traditional social fabric finds anecdotal support in the Wang Yue incident cited above by Xin Meng. In October 2011, The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore visited the Foshan marketplace where the accident took place:

Although many other families live in the market above their stores, there is little sense of community. Just as in countless other hardscrabble suburbs across China, the residents are mostly migrants, drawn from all over the country.

They have little in common, beyond their shared desire to make money and improve their lot. And in the evenings, they close their shutters and retreat into their lonely stores.

“It is quite sad that we don’t really talk to each other because we all sell different things,” said a 50-year-old woman who would only name herself as Ms Hu, from a store selling abrasive pads a short stroll away from the Wang’s shop.