When China began limiting couples to one child 30 years ago, the policy’s most obvious goal was to contain a mushrooming population. For the Chinese people, however, the policy’s greater purpose was to turn out a group of young elites who would each enjoy the undivided resources of their whole family—the so-called xiao huangdi, or “little emperors.” The plan was to “produce a generation of high-quality children to facilitate China’s introduction as a global power,” explains Susan Greenhalgh, an expert on the policy. But while these well-educated, driven achievers are fueling the nation’s economic boom, their generation has become too modern too quickly, glutted as it is with televisions, access to computers, cash to buy name brands, and the same expectations of middle-class success as Western kids.
The shift in temperament has happened too fast for society to handle. China is still a developing nation with limited opportunity, leaving millions of ambitious little emperors out in the cold; the country now churns out more than 4 million university graduates yearly, but only 1.6 million new college-level jobs. Even the strivers end up as security guards. China may be the world’s next great superpower, but it’s facing a looming crisis as millions of overpressurized, hypereducated only children come of age in a nation that can’t fulfill their expectations.
This culture of pressure and frustration has sparked a mental-health crisis for young Chinese. Many simmer in depression or unemployment, unwilling to take jobs they consider beneath them. Millions, afraid to face the real world, escape into video games, which the government considers a national epidemic. And a disturbing number decide to end it all; suicide is now China’s leading cause of death for those aged 20 to 35. “People in China—especially parents and college students—are suddenly becoming aware of huge depression and anxiety problems in young people,” says Yu Zeng, a 23-year-old from Sichuan province. “The media report on new campus suicides all the time.”