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The one child policy and social change


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The one child policy and social change

  1. 1. The One-Child Policy and Social Changeby Larry Troy, Jun 16, 2008, at 11:13 amSee more of my photos of children and families in China on my flickr page.I went on this trip to learn first-hand about China, as much as could be learned in sponsored tourof 10 days! I learned an incredible amount, especially by observing life as best I could in Beijing,Xi’an, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, and talking to our tour guides, other people I met who spokeEnglish, and the faculty and students at Peking and Fudan Universities. I’ve decided to narrowmy blog entries to specific thoughts on specific issues.One of the things that most impressed me was how the one-child policy combines with massiverural-urban migrations to create the potential for significant change in China. The one-childpolicy is one of the first things that American friends and acquaintances brought up to me when Imentioned that I was going to China. Most Americans view this policy with horror, and the largenumber of child deaths in the recent earthquake only reinforces the antipathy. “Oh my, their onlychild died, and they can’t have another. How tragic!” Of course, I agree about the tragedy, butthose of us aware of the massive problems of feeding, housing, and employing the growingChinese population recognize that something had to be done, and, as our own politicians like tosay at election time, “Someone has to make the hard decisions.”So my sense from my visit is that the Chinese largely understand and accept this policy, and goabout their business of living. All over China, I saw mothers and a child, fathers and a child,couples with a child, grandparents with a child. Single children were carried on bicycles andmotorbikes in rush hour traffic every morning and evening. Tourist sites were overwhelmed withfamilies with one child.The result of all this, in the words of one of the sociologists we met at Peking University, is the“1980s generation.” Policy makers, scholars, and the general public seem to be concerned thatthe new generations are being spoiled! Their wishes are being catered to; they are only interestedin new technology; they are too individualistic; they don’t understand what “we” went through inthe Cultural Revolution (a topic for another blog); they take their privileges for granted.ChinaDaily, the English language newspaper (or propaganda sheet!), reported on 6 June 2008 that thePeople’s Congress in the province of Liaoning drafted legislation making it “an obligation foradult children to contact or visit their parents regularly….Government employees, who fail to doso, will face sanctions by their respective agencies.” The newspaper reported that they expect thedraft to become law by the end of the year. The fact that such a law is being considered,mentioned in an English language periodical, and is expected to be passed, shows the depth ofconcern.Of course some of these sentiments are quite common when families are caught up in socialchange. Similar reactions are often expressed within immigrant families in America andworldwide. The notion that the young don’t understand what the old went through, or whatelders sacrificed, is a common theme in ethnic literature and scholarship (Japanese-American,African-American, Hispanic-American, white-ethnic-American, etc).What is different about China, however, is that many seem to fear that the centuries-old,collectively focused, Chinese culture is at risk. It’s almost as if they are asking, “How will therevolution be continued, when we are raising little Westerners?”I, of course, don’t have ananswer to this question, but it may create the conditions for cultural change beyond the grasp ofthe planned social and economic changes that Chinese leaders are presenting. The newgenerations are privileged beyond the dreams of their parents, and with affluence comes culturalchange. I don’t see how the clock can be turned back.
  2. 2. Rural-urban migration issues in China illuminate a different facet of these issues, and thismigration is vast. For example, we were told that Shanghai now has 19 million people, and thatover 5 million are migrant workers. In China, you are “registered” in the province of yourbirth. Moving is easier now than historically; one can move in search of employment and, ifsuccessful, one’s employer helps with a residency visa in the new province that might last for 1or 3 years. After that temporary period, a permanent visa can be obtained if one has skills neededin the new province. As in most migration streams, these tend to follow kinship linkages.Nevertheless, migrant workers are presenting significant challenges for the new urbaneconomies. It is startling to me that every student who spoke to us at Fudan University wasinterested in studying some aspect of the generational effects of this migration. Some marriedcouples migrate to the urban areas, but leave their children in the provinces with theirgrandparents. Others couples migrate with their children. In the former case, parents lookforward to the time that the family can get back together, after the children have finished collegeand joined them. In the latter case, the Chinese students were reporting that they never see theirparents, since both are working all the time, and actually feel closer to their grandparents back inthe rural provinces. Without the attention of their parents, many young people are gettinginvolved with various delinquencies, such as drugs, alcohol, sex, and crime. The generation gapis thus exacerbated. To make matters worse, public education is funded at the province level, andmunicipalities like Shanghai are reluctant to provide education through high school for thechildren of migrants. These children, therefore, will have to return to the provinces for highschool education, or drop out and enter the shadowy world of the informal economy.Of course, these generational migration problems would be occurring regardless of the one-childpolicy. But that policy highlights significant contradictory results in today’s China.Children bornto urban families are “being spoiled.” Children born to migrant workers, on the other hand, arefacing the difficult situation of being cast into the urban world with fewer controls on theirbehavior, and an uncertain sense of belongingness. Both cases are creating a cultural changelarge enough for attempts to legislate morality (to use an American political phrase), and willlikely lead to greater individualism in a society that has long prided itself on a collectivementality.