China instituted its one-child policy in the late 1970s, just as Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were beginning. There are different rules for urban and rural families (multiple children are permitted in some rural areas), regional variations in enforcement, and plenty of loopholes. But the policy has successfully reduced China’s overall birthrate to less than two children per woman, and to much lower levels in the major cities (though the population keeps growing because of leaps in longevity). There is little prospect of China becoming a one-child nation, but the traditional Chinese family—an extended web of relatives with a hierarchy of moral obligations—is no longer the norm. More and more children are growing up without cousins, aunts, or uncles, only parents and grandparents, whom they alone will have to support in later years. In a civilization where family bonds have always trumped those of friendship and citizenship, one can’t help wondering whether, years from now, the one-child policy will not be considered as revolutionary as the economic reforms we are more familiar with.
It’s a topic everyone we met talked about. During our visit there was another episode in a string of brutal mass murders of schoolchildren committed by footloose men, most with mental problems, some unemployed or bankrupt. Even the official press speculates about the role resentment against children might have played in the killings, resentment fed by the pampering only-children now receive from anxious parents. Several of the killers, who say they’ve been left behind and forgotten, apparently expressed these sentiments. And parents of these children certainly do seem anxious—understandably so, now that their family’s legacy rests upon one set of shoulders. Pressure on young people to pass their exams has become even more intense, and the papers are full of stories about cheating schemes and bribes given to obtain passing scores. Grandparents, I was told, see less and less of their busy grandchildren. In the past, they were the primary sources of day-care, which was facilitated by the shared courtyards in traditional Chinese hutong. Now many of the elderly in cities are being moved to apartment towers where they live alone and where public space is scarce. One sometimes sees them grouped on traffic meridians or under freeway underpasses, talking to friends, doing tai chi, flying kites.