The blame game

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 December, 2007, 12:00am

In our eagerness to explain each new facet of the mainland's phenomenal development, we too often rush to conclusions. Uncharacteristic social occurrences, events and statistics of late are a case in point. At fault, it is widely assumed, is the one-child policy. The population-curbing measure promulgated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 was this week in part blamed by observers for a dramatic increase over the past decade in crime committed by youngsters aged between 14 and 18.

In recent years, it has also been pointed to as the reason for the perceived lowering of regard for traditional family values, rising divorce rates, loose sexual morality and job instability.

These are the sons and daughters of the urban middle and upper classes that Deng's economic reforms - launched the previous year - have been steadily creating. With the austerity and hardship of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the following decade as a backdrop, there is no doubt that these children are different from their forebears.

To many on the mainland, they are the 'me' generation: emperors and empresses who have been given it all by their doting parents. They are seen as being spoiled, selfish, lonely and maladjusted.

These are the stereotypes of only children the world over that decades of research have debunked. The products of one-child families are, with a few exceptions, no different from the rest of us.

Of the hundreds of studies to evaluate their intelligence, personality, sociability, psychological adjustment and achievement, only in the area of achievement have they been found to be different; they tend to complete more years of school and attain more prestigious jobs.

One-child-family studies go back to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when families in the most-developed countries, through economic necessity, chose to have fewer children. After the second world war, the number of children per family rose, and the baby boom continued into the 1960s. The trend has since been towards smaller families and, in most developed nations, couples are having an average of less than two offspring. In Hong Kong, the figure is hovering around just 1.0 - causing concern, as elsewhere, about how to reverse the trend of an ageing population.

Surprisingly, despite authorities advocating one child per couple, the mainland's fertility rate is said, by various researchers, to be between 1.47 and 2.0 per couple. This is because the policy is not uniformly applied across the country and, in some cases, has been relaxed.

But, despite the increasing trend globally for smaller families, there are not the same concerns being voiced elsewhere. University of Texas professor Toni Falbo, the world's pre-eminent expert on only children and the one-child policy, puts it down to there having always been open discussion on the mainland about the need to have smaller families. This is markedly different, she explained, to how people feel about criticising other government measures - hence, the policy was instantly turned to whenever a social statistic needed explaining.

Dr Falbo is presently conducting new research to update findings from the 1980s and 1990s. She does not expect to see that the predominance of only children is behind increased trends of youth violence, sexual promiscuity and the like. Rather, she is most interested in other, more worrying, consequences of the one-child policy: the predominance of the number of males and the pressure young people face to be successful.

These are not so discussed by mainland leaders, yet they could have a dire effect on China's future. The leadership has long sought a nation of high achievers, but the stress this causes is one matter, while the competition for top jobs is quite another when there are only a limited number of such positions available.

Dr Falbo is leading the charge to find answers. Until we have the facts, let's not rush to any conclusions about what is behind social trends on the mainland.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor