Japan from the inside out

The psychological state of the little emperors today

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, August 16, 2008

THE WORLD IS PAYING closer attention to the young Chinese in the new generation of only children known as xiao huangdi, or little emperors. Another perspective on contemporary Chinese conditions is presented in an article called The Plight of the Little Emperors in the current edition of Psychology Today.

The article makes a point that is seldom discussed: The Chinese one-child policy was devised to create an elite class as well as to limit population.

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 even the robust growth of the Chinese economy can’t keep up with their sheer numbers:

(W)hile 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.

The result?

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.

A national epidemic? Video games are a global epidemic.

Many young only children opt for escape from reality through online gaming worlds. Every day, the nation’s 113,000 Internet cafés teem with twitchy, solitary players—high school and university students, dropouts, and unemployed graduates—an alarming number of whom remain in place for days without food or sleep. Official estimates put the number of Chinese Internet addicts at over 2 million, and the government considers it such a serious threat that it deploys volunteer groups to prowl the streets and prevent teens from entering Internet cafés.

Yet despite the suicides and the other obvious problems, the author claims the policy has worked:

Chinese parents bemoan their only child’s desire for instant gratification, excessive consumption, and a life free of hardship, but such complaints are just proof that the policy worked: The children are like little Americans.

What an interesting definition of success.

A slew of anecdotes notwithstanding, the author also says the only children aren’t spoiled brats:

Since the policy’s inception, the Chinese have worried that the extreme combination of discipline and indulgence would result in maladjusted kids, self-centered brats who can’t take criticism and don’t understand sharing…Yet despite the stereotype, the research has revealed no evidence that only kids have more negative traits than their peers with siblings—in China or anywhere else. “The only way only children are reliably different from others is they score slightly higher in academic achievement,” explains Toni Falbo, a University of Texas psychology professor who has gathered data on more than 4,000 Chinese only kids. Sure, some little emperors are bratty, but no more than children with siblings.

Then why do the Chinese themselves call them “little emperors”?

You can believe that one if you want, but I’ll take it with a grain of salt for the time being. The social sciences really aren’t as “scientific” as its practitioners claim, studies of this kind are bound to be flawed and subjective, and this is only one professor talking about 4,000 children out of hundreds of millions without describing how she reached her conclusions.

While the article does provide detail on the educational pressures and the problems of those who can’t find prestigious, high-salaried jobs, it is surprisingly mute on the psychological problems of the little male emperors who can’t get a date due to the gender imbalance, as we previously saw here.

It also surprisingly ignores the context for the pressures to succeed in school and seems to suggest that the current situation is an anomaly. These pressures are not unique to China today; parents have traditionally pushed their children to study long and hard in Japan and South Korea as well as China. This is true even for those Chinese who have emigrated to the West.

And have they forgotten the glut of stories about Japanese mothers, juku (the so-called cram schools), and suicides that sprouted in the Western press about 15 years ago? (These pressures have eased somewhat in Japan recently, though they still exist.)

The entire article can be found here.

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