Little Emperors

Sheng Yun

  • BuyOne Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment by Mei Fong
    Oneworld, 250 pp, £12.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 1 78074 845 0
  • BuyChina’s Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy by Kay Ann Johnson
    Chicago, 218 pp, £16.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 226 35251 0

I was born in 1980, the year China implemented the one-child policy: I don’t have siblings, and neither do my peers. Whenever a Westerner learns that I’m an only child, the facial expression is a give-away: ‘You must have been terribly spoiled’ or ‘You must have been terribly lonely.’ Stanley Hall, the pioneering child psychologist, referred to the condition as ‘a disease in itself’. Our generation were known as ‘little emperors’ here in China. We are the chubby (pampered) babies surrounded by parents and grandparents in posters and cartoons. Being spoiled was the least of it. The attention a couple pay to their only hope can be overwhelming. Often they were very strict. At school, where we were all ‘little emperors’, we were subjected to shock therapy. A boy at my primary school had every meal fed to him by his mother until he was ten. Our teacher’s approach was to get us all to mock him, and man him up a bit.

Growing up wasn’t a lot of fun, but we didn’t have much to complain about either. I was never beaten, and unlike the older generation, I never went a single day without food. The worst punishment was a thorough scolding, probably for bullying boys at school – girls usually did better than boys in primary and middle school and there were many haughty little tigresses – or for speaking out of turn. My mother never allowed me to do chores or housework even when I was eager to help: ‘Your only task is to study, nothing else.’ My parents didn’t go to university – they didn’t have a chance to – and it was my job, apparently, to ensure that I did. This command was issued endlessly throughout my childhood until I finally fulfilled their dream. Part one of mission accomplished.

Some of us made it to a top university; we were aiming for a better life and hoping to ‘make a difference’. The irony is that we had already missed the boat: the opportunities associated with China’s opening up were shortlived. The 1990s were boom years for people born in the 1960s (Chinese count generations in ten-year intervals): young, energetic, ready to inherit the new China. Soon they would take all the key positions in the economy, the universities, the state administration, even the arts, leaving their successors with little room for manoeuvre. For the 1960s crowd 1989 was the moment of transition. They were going through college at the time (often with their siblings) and were, on the whole, idealists, believing in reform and freedom. Tiananmen and 4 June changed everything.

From then on, instead of trying to change the political system they would focus on wealth creation. From the ashes of their hopes a shrewd, hard-nosed business elite emerged, driving China’s economic performance indicators to new heights. After 1989, foreign multinationals, impressed by the state’s iron determination and commitment to stability, began to invest heavily in the country. Before long, the children of the 1960s were basking in double-digit growth, and cleaning up as equity and property boomed. Few laws or regulations constrained venture capitalism, and China got its first good look at the filthy rich. (Many have since fallen foul of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.) When the children of the 1980s hit the job market, we found ourselves in an unenviable situation. The rental on a small one-bedroom flat in a city like Shanghai is at least 5000 rmb a month (double that in the French Concession); buying would mean a mortgage for life. Many of us still live with our parents and are known as kenlaozu, ‘boomerang kids’: the little emperors are stuck at home, and not very different from the West’s generation of neets.

A popular – and true – story still does the rounds about a man who in 1984 sold his little villa in the French Concession for 300,000 rmb (about £30,000), and went to Italy to try his luck (everybody with money in their pocket dreamed of going abroad at the time). In Italy he took a grinding day job and studied the language at night. He lived in a migrant neighbourhood in Milan, or maybe Rome; he was robbed seven times and assaulted on three occasions. After thirty years of toil and thrift, he managed to save a million euros, and returned to Shanghai, where he enjoyed his retirement until the day he passed an estate agent and noticed his old villa was up for sale at 130 million rmb. (Shanghai is proud of its property boom; people scoffed when the Panama Papers revealed that Putin has $2 billion in offshore holdings. Last year, he could have bought a compound in downtown Shanghai with that, but real estate prices doubled in the first three months of 2016 and now he’d need a mortgage.)

Only children who move away from home are often lured back by guilt. One of my friends had to give up a good job at the South Bank in London and return to Shanghai. Whenever she spoke to her mother and father on the phone there were tears and threats of an imminent heart attack (‘What if you are not around when we die?’). Parents of single children are also extremely picky about potential spouses; nobody is good enough. All the same, I know very few people roughly my age who haven’t already married and had babies, or who don’t plan to do both, just to satisfy their parents. Things are much harder if the only child is gay. W., for instance, after dozens of failed matchmaking attempts by his mother, came up with an ingenious solution and persuaded a lesbian, under pressure from her own family, to marry him. The moment his mother laid eyes on her the plan collapsed. ‘She isn’t pretty enough to bear my grandson!’ W. was forced to do the rounds again. Last spring festival, he wrote his mother a long letter (ten thousand words), baring his soul – and his sexual preference. But he hasn’t sent it. He told me he was afraid she’d kill him, and then commit suicide.

My generation may not have as much wealth as the previous one but we’re materialistic and hedonistic. We splash out on whatever pleases us, possibly as a reaction to the pressure we’re under. Many of my friends are used to travelling alone, watching movies alone, shopping alone, because they tend to act on impulse and feel they need to grab the moment. It doesn’t mean we don’t know how to share, or that we’re alienated from one another. Sometimes only children are very willing to share. We’re not so different from children with siblings: everyone has to learn how to be with themselves as well as with others.

In 2015 the one-child policy was phased out. Mei Fong calls it ‘China’s most radical experiment’, and clearly thinks of it as on a par with the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward. Kay Ann Johnson calls it ‘brutal’, even an ‘atrocity’. Most reviewers have backed these claims, but we only children are a lot luckier than our parents and their many siblings (an average of between three and five). They were the rusticated youth or zhiqing, also known as the ‘lost generation’, who were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution to be ‘re-educated’ among the peasants. My mother was 16 when she was sent away: she had barely finished middle school when she was told she would be leaving Shanghai for an unknown world and an uncertain future. But she set off in high spirits, eager to show initiative and prove she had the strength to break with her family of bourgeois intellectuals. The Down to the Countryside movement was deemed necessary because the population had grown too quickly. Marauding bands of Red Guards were getting out of hand in the cities, and bands of jobless youngsters were roaming the streets. Many later poems and novels describe the tears shed by zhiqing as they boarded trains to the rural areas, but it’s not clear that all of them were sad. My mother wasn’t. But it was a radical experiment that robbed a whole generation of their right to education.

Once at a family dinner, my parents were reminiscing about their time among the farmers: six or seven years in my mother’s case, around two in my father’s. I had just read The Lost Generation: The Rustication of China’s Educated Youth (1968-80) by Michel Bonnin. I interrupted: ‘You were sent to the countryside because there were too many of you in the city, and there weren’t enough jobs for you.’ I still remember the expression of shock, disappointment and hurt on their faces. A brief silence followed, and then my mother began to explain how well the peasants had treated her; she said they always saved the best of the harvest for the young zhiqing. She was lucky, too, that they didn’t like her favourite dish, Chinese mitten crabs (a luxury in Shanghai), so every season she feasted on them. She played the cello in a youth ensemble, and learned how to grow and tend a variety of produce. ‘Not much hard labour, and I ate well and healthily,’ she protested. My father’s line was always the same: ‘Thanks to Chairman Mao, I have a Shanghai beauty as a wife.’

Some were unhappy in the rural areas, and horribly mistreated; others look back on it as an idyll; but all were consigned to a bleak future. By the 1950s China’s population growth had already outstripped the state’s ability to deliver services. When I was young I was angry with my parents for not continuing their education when they’d had the chance: I thought they were lazy. Now I see how arrogant and wrong I was. In 1977, the year the College Entrance Examination (gaokao) was reinstated (the Cultural Revolution had done away with the national educational system), 5.7 million people sat the tests and only 273,000 were given places. My parents didn’t exercise their right to sit the exam: they knew they wouldn’t stand a chance after so long in the rural areas.

Besides marking the start of the one-child policy, 1980 was the year the Down to the Countryside Movement ended. When zhiqing were given permission to return, after having spent an average of five years in the rural areas, many unceremoniously abandoned their rural spouses and offspring, went back to their home cities and started new lives. A genre known as zhiqing literature focuses on the attempts by the children they left (referred to as nie zhai, or ‘debt claimers’) to find their birth parents in the cities.

Some aspects of life in the 1980s were not so bad for those who’d returned to urban areas. The state was investing heavily in public housing so every working family had a roof over their heads and even if freedom from other kinds of want was rare, at least we were all poor together. There was also a surge in attention to reading, writing, the arts and philosophy, after the barrenness of the Cultural Revolution. It was a golden age; many European classics appeared in translation (often without permission), and every weekend my father took me to buy books. People queued for new arrivals and talked about writers and their work. Popular titles, both Chinese and foreign – usually philosophy or canonical literature – sold in the millions. Even as a child, I could feel the excitement as I queued with my father. We’d buy all kinds of books. I read Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe in Chinese when I was eight or nine, without understanding a word.

The 1990s hit my parents’ generation hard, and their difficulties lasted into the new century. They were not equipped to compete with the well-educated 1960s generation during the economic boom. Their lack of schooling meant, too, that they were forced to retire early (40-45 for women, 45-50 for men) to make room for younger workers. They are lost in modern China, digitally illiterate, casualties of a radical experiment. But compared to their parents, who could say that they are not fortunate?


My maternal grandfather was a literary critic and actor. In the 1930s and 1940s he went underground as a member of the Communist Party, writing in support of the cause. He had seen the corruption of the Kuomintang regime, and believed that Mao was the saviour of the Chinese people. In 1954, the famous poet Hu Feng wrote a 300,000-word letter to the Bureau of the Central Committee, describing the difficulties writers faced. Mao saw this as defiance on the part of the intellectuals, and a literary argument rapidly turned into a political purge. More than two thousand people were punished, 78 of whom were described as members of the Hu Feng Counter-Revolution Group, including my grandfather. He was sent to Jia Bian Gou (the labour camp in Wang Bing’s 2010 film, The Ditch), located in the remote province of Gansu. Jia Bian Gou, sometimes called the Chinese Gulag, was probably the worst of the labour camps for dissidents. While he was not close to Hu Feng, and had only met him a few times, he had remained an admirer. The family now thinks that his arrest was intended to settle an obscure personal score: he had a legendary temper and may well have offended a big shot.

Twenty-five years later my grandfather was rehabilitated under Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 amnesty and returned home. His mother opened the door to a hump-backed, pigeon-chested old man whom she failed for a moment to recognise as the handsome young man she’d last seen in the 1950s. As far back as I can remember, my grandpa was in poor health, always out of breath halfway up a flight of stairs. He told me fascinating stories with the actor’s diction for which he’d once been famous, and he taught me how to read properly.

After he came home, grandma said, his nightmares used to wake them both in the night. He never told me anything about the horror in that camp. ‘You belong to the future,’ he said. ‘You don’t need to look back.’ But he did tell me a story about a radish. Someone in the camp had found this very rare addition to the rations, but this miraculous find would stretch much further in soup. He and a fellow inmate looked around for kindling, but were forced to use books to start a fire: the complete collection of Sima Qian’s Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian) went up in flames. He told me he’d wept with shame after they finished the radish soup. ‘I burned Sima Qian because I’d yielded to the demands of my stomach. A moral disaster.’

It was my grandfather who encouraged me to study the Chinese classics at university. My professor told me that I was probably the only descendant of a member of the Hu Feng Group who had gone on to study literature. Once I was old enough to understand what had happened to our family, grandpa’s historian friends encouraged me to help him dictate his memoirs. I bought a dictaphone and taught him how to use it. He was reluctant at first, but after a long struggle with his reticence, he decided that maybe younger people should after all know what happened. He mastered the dictaphone and made a half-hour recording. The following day he was taken to hospital, where he fell into a coma. Two weeks later, he died of multiple organ failure. I still blame myself for pushing him to relive his nightmares, in the name of posterity. Fong and Johnson are right to lament the harshness of the one-child policy, but it’s important to put it in proportion. Very few of us, knowing what our parents and grandparents went through, would describe ourselves as the miserable victims of some ‘worst ever’ policy.


Besides, there were benign aspects of the one-child policy, especially for girls. Traditionally females were used as domestic help, birth machines or clan assets to marry off or trade. Women didn’t go to school, and were encouraged to internalise the saying that ‘a woman without talent is virtuous.’ Illiteracy was their proper condition: they were there to clean, farm, and above all to give birth to a male heir. They could not dine with men at the same table. Even today in many rural areas, all the family resources are invested in the male heir. The one-child policy forced people to review many of their assumptions, and at least try to treat girls as they would boys: parents, after all, were not able to choose their child’s sex, and had to come to terms with whichever they got. The policy also ended the nonsense that having a girl put paid to the family line. I have only one male cousin on my father’s side (regarded as the precious ‘trickle’ of the family bloodline), but when he had a girl, our family promptly abandoned their absurd talk about the male line. Cheers.

Western scholars and human rights activists are inclined to blame the one-child policy for forced abortions, female infanticide, the under-reporting of female births and so on. These issues were deadly serious but they resulted less from the policy than from the nature of Chinese patriarchy, which the policy threw into sharp relief. People were willing to break the law, to pay a fine to have a second go at having a boy, even to murder or abandon female babies. Paradoxically the one-child policy undermined the atavism of tradition, even while seeming to encourage it. I grew up in Hefei, about 500 km west of Shanghai, where I remember a striking young girl from the countryside who attended a private violin class; she was the daughter of peasant parents who spoke poor Mandarin. Without the one-child policy, her father would have tried fanatically to conceive a second, third, fourth child, until the family produced a male heir. His daughters would have led miserable lives. Instead, he invested in his only child’s violin lessons.

The one-child policy meant that growing numbers of rural and urban female students attended universities, once a strictly male preserve. Before long we shall see more and more women in positions of responsibility in many fields. Educated Chinese women often qualify for the obnoxious category ‘leftover lady’: career women whose opportunity to marry has passed. There is still a tendency to condescend to single women and see them as failures, but many brilliant ‘leftover’ women are glad to see that their parents are slowly learning to respect their choice.

The one-child policy also freed women from the burden of domestic work and childcare. Many more Chinese women go out to work than Indian women, and full-time housework is no longer a choice for the modern Chinese woman; only a few choose to quit their job after giving birth. When the one-child policy was wound up last year (it was replaced by a two-child policy), there was very little interest: Dinks (dual income, no kids) are quite common in big cities – none of the seven commissioning editors at the Shanghai Review of Books has children – and the one-child policy was becoming an irrelevance. For rural people, the situation is much the same. Already under the policy they were allowed to have a second try if the firstborn was a girl: in reality it was a 1.5 child policy.

Fong admits that urban Chinese women were the real beneficiaries of the policy. ‘In 2010, women made up half of the master’s degree students in China. The country’s female labour force participation is among the highest in Asia, with 70 per cent of Chinese women either employed in some capacity or seeking employment, compared to just a quarter of their Indian sisters, according to Gallup.’ Curiously, she goes on to attribute the growing commodification of women – foreign women especially – to the gender imbalance in China: official figures suggest there are now 34 million more men than women. ‘While it’s possible to argue that the one-child policy has benefited some women in China, it’s certainly been detrimental to women in bordering countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and North Korea, where trafficking and kidnapping of women for Chinese men have risen in recent years.’ She sees the booming PVC sex doll factory in Dongguan as another consequence of gender imbalance, but other factors are at work here. It’s true that the one-child policy has left traditional, less well-to-do Chinese men in a difficult position, but men who use dolls (or live in communities that take vulnerable, trafficked women as brides) might not be too keen on a relationship with an independent, non-PVC woman, however many were around.

Both Johnson and Fong dismiss the policy’s environmental benefits. Fong deplores the fact that ‘it continues to get plaudits, especially from environmentalists’ and doubts the official figure of 300-400 million births averted: she believes it’s 100-200 million at most. She doesn’t buy the Economist’s view that it’s slowed climate change. Johnson, too, is suspicious of a national family-planning policy ‘in the name of lessening environmental destruction and mitigating global warming’. But it remains true that if we can’t regulate population growth, nudging it well below the levels reached in China before the advent of the one-child policy, we’re facing an environmental nightmare.

The one-child policy was not designed to enhance Chinese women’s social status or slow down environmental degradation; it didn’t envisage forced abortion or trafficking in infants. For Johnson, the repercussions of the policy – the first two especially – matter less than the feelings of her own adopted Chinese daughter: the book explains that her birth parents weren’t to blame for parting with her; it was forced on them by an inhumane policy. She might have been killed, or stolen, but instead she was left on the streets of a big city. Her birth parents must have hoped that whoever found her would take her to a state-owned children’s home, where she would be offered a better life. Instead she was ‘monetised’ on the international adoption market. But in the end she did find a better life, even if it was far from home. To Chinese policy-makers, adoption overseas was clearly the lesser evil.

Tragedies and abuses, some of them heart-breaking, don’t obscure the fact that in China we had, and have, too many people. Throughout the 35 years of the one-child policy, China’s population continued to grow, from roughly 1 billion in 1980 to 1.4 billion today, and life expectancy with it. Fong believes that the one-child policy was unnecessary, because persuasion was working. Persuasion might have been effective with the educated classes in the cities, but not with rural families. After the advent of the policy, people thought twice before breaking the law, even though tradition still trumps the new two-child policy in parts of rural China.

The sociologist Wang Feng argues that if we don’t keep population growth at a certain level, our demographic advantage will wane, leaving us with an ageing society and dire consequences for our economy. Fong, formerly a star reporter for the Wall Street Journal, worries that China will run out of cheap labour in the near future and lose its competitive edge. I am not an economist, and so I can’t help wondering why it’s a good thing to exploit cheap labour, turn ourselves into a vast manufacturing hub for the world market, and destroy our own environment. Earlier this year ChemChina acquired the Swiss agriculture giant Syngenta for $42.2 billion dollars, the largest ever foreign acquisition by a Chinese company. The deal was barely mentioned in the mainland media; perhaps our leaders don’t want people to dwell on its implications: that China may not be able to feed its population for much longer without external help. If we had allowed our population to grow like India’s, we would be consuming far more of the planet’s grain and livestock than we are already (the Economist likes to remind us that, with our population at its current size, we eat half the world’s pigs). After high levels of melamine were discovered in powdered milk in 2008, mainland mothers descended on Hong Kong and emptied the shelves, leaving Hong Kong mothers with nothing: it was a small illustration of what two or three billion Chinese could do to the Earth’s resources.