To be an only child is generally considered a misfortune or at least a social disadvantage, bringing loneliness in childhood and awkwardness in adulthood. The English journalist Dominic Lawson, writing some years ago about the arrival of his second daughter (who has Down syndrome) said their firstborn had begged for a sibling, complaining, "I am so only!"
The family is the original cell of society and brothers and sisters provide a natural introduction to friendship and daily opportunities for character training. Only children seem more likely to be "spoilt" by their parents, either over-indulged or subjected to relentless pressure to fulfil parental ambitions that might otherwise be spread over several offspring.
None of these things, presumably, were in the minds of the Chinese politicians who foisted the notorious one-child policy on their country more than 25 years ago, nor in the blinkered sights of western population control freaks who egged them on. It was a numbers game then and, despite growing evidence of the negative effects, it still is.
"Family planning policy prevents 400 million births," announced a headline on the China Daily website last month. Chief population official Zhang Weiquing had been telling an International Workshop for Senior Officials on Capacity-Building in Programme Management on Population and Development (evidently an attempt to export China’s expertise to developing countries) that China is determined to keep its "mainland" population — already 1.3 billion — below 1.37 billion by 2010.
Zhang is concerned about a "baby boom in the next four years as the first only-child generation reaches childbearing age." He is more worried about that than about the problems of an ageing population, and a sex ratio that, according to US demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, has permanently skewed the demographic balance of the country in favour of males — both trends being direct results of the population policy.
Not tough enough
But what about this first only-child generation? How are they shaping up? For years we have been hearing about the "little emperor" — the spoilt only son of the big cities who is the sole focus of his parents’ and grandparents’ hopes and dreams. As they leave university, however, these young people are in for some rude shocks. Some are finding that employers do not like them very much.
Recently, China Daily reports, the Sinohydro Engineering Bureau No. 1 in the central province of Henan held a job fair for students majoring in hydro-electricity. But when Chen Fengxin expectantly handed over his resume, it was not murmurs of approval he heard but these questions: "Are you from a village? Do you have any brothers and sisters?" If he was from a city, and especially if he was an only child (as city children are more likely to be), the recruiter was not interested. Chen was stunned.
A female representative of the hydro scheme explained to a local paper: "Students from cities and only children cannot endure the hardships incurred in the process of geological exploration. Brain drain is rife," she said, adding that parents of only children hope their offspring can stay close to them and not work too far away.
Workers from the Investigation Design Institute of Water Conservation and Electric Power in Cangzhou city, Hebei Province, were of the same opinion: "Experience proves that lots of only children are prone to be effeminate [soft?] and overconfident," said an anonymous spokesman. "Sixty per cent of staff who are only children will hop from job to job. My company attaches more importance to strong will and vitality to conquer hardships."
Stamina and loyalty are what employers the world over want, of course, but in America or Australia, for example, they have to find far more subtle methods of selection. Ask an applicant if he is an only child or how many Playstations he had before he was 12, and you are likely to be reported to the equal opportunity commissioner. But when China Daily asked an academic if the questions Chen encountered violated employment regulations, he replied: "Preferring to choose employees based on whether or not they are only children cannot be labelled as a discriminatory policy. It’s a natural consequence of being only children."
Lacking team skills
So, here’s a how-do-you-do. Even as government affirms the necessity of the one-child policy, employers in its own industries are saying it cannot provide the kind of workers the country needs. And adolescents who slog their way through the country’s fiercely competitive university system, face the crushing experience of rejection by employers on grounds over which they have no control.
It would not be so bad if the children could pick up at school what they miss out on at home. But this is not so easy. The reason is touched on in a recent report conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and based on a survey of 148 executives of companies with operations in China. Western executives say China’s schools are geared to the individual, recognising and rewarding academic brilliance, but failing to teach the value of teamwork, which is so important today for successful company leadership.
"In the West we learn about teamwork from an early age, particularly through team sports at school," says Alastair Nicholas, who heads up AC Capital Consulting, a corporate affairs and public relations firm in Beijing. "The current generation of Chinese managers and young professionals don’t have this experience."
There is one time-honoured way, though, of toughening up and learning teamwork and it is now being encouraged in China. An increasing number of university students are enlisting in the army — more than 10,000 so far, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. The army gains by recruiting more educated people into its permanent ranks, while others return to university. In return for their two-year stint, the army tries to help students find where their talents lie, and in many cases they return to school with merit citations and sometimes financial support.
China Daily quotes a recruit who is an only child: "I have lived a comfortable life for 19 years and I want something that is different, that tests the ability to endure hardship." Another student says he leads an undisciplined life at the College of Software where he studies, but, "I want to steel my will and further discipline myself through military training." A 23-year-old says his army experience was character building: "When the commander scolds you, whether he is right or wrong, it is the order, and you have to obey. Any opinionated person would become a cobblestone in the army."
All very gung-ho, for sure, and most gratifying to political leaders who want to forge an unbeatable combination of western-style economic power and traditional Confucian values of social harmony based on hierarchical authority.
As for the rest of us…
Whether true social harmony, Confucian or otherwise, can be built on a foundation other than the family itself remains to be seen. It is not even certain that a couple of years of boot camp discipline, or any other form of compensation for natural family life, can produce the workforce that China needs to realise its global ambitions. Japan, after all, has a very disciplined workforce, but its economic might is sinking along with its birthrate and the weakening of the family.
Are there some lessons in this for the rest of the world? After all, the population of most countries has been manipulated almost as thoroughly as that of China through the semi-official "two-child policy" of the last half-century — an ideal that increasingly defaults to "one". Don’t we have our own armies of little emperors, well-drilled in consumerism but ill-prepared for the demands of daily work and responsibility?
Certain experts in their ivory towers continue to rabbit on about over-population, but it is gradually dawning on the rest of us what "demography is destiny" really means. If our destiny is to be a vibrant economy and social harmony, we had better stop interfering with the family. Otherwise the West will implode with most of Asia leaving the Muslim world to clean up. At least that will solve the war on terror.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.