Surprise! China is Not a Nation of Single Children

Family Planning in China Is Controversial and Often Misunderstood, Says Jigsaw's P.T. Black

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SHANGHAI ( -- Thirty years ago China introduced the biggest plan for social engineering the world has ever seen. This family planning rule – China's infamous "one-child policy" – has reshaped the country's demographics and impacted every aspect of its development. To put it in perspective, last year the government announced that over the past thirty years the policy has been responsible for averting over 400 million births.

China's family planning is also highly controversial and intensely criticized. We all have heard the tales of cruel implementation, skewed gender ratios and an imminent shortage of young workers capable of supporting their elders.

P.T. Black
P.T. Black
But there is a lot more to China's population policies than horror stories. The fact is, regardless of whether you are a fan or a critic, you can't understand today's China without understanding its policies towards population control.

I'll start by clearing up the biggest misunderstanding: China is not a nation of single children.

According to recent UN statistics, the average number of children per woman in China is 1.73. While that number is certainly lower than the US (2.05 children per woman), it is higher than developed nations like Canada (1.53) or Spain (1.41). Rumors of the disappearance of siblings have been greatly exaggerated.

Some families have two or more kids
This is because China's family planning rule is not, strictly speaking, a one-child policy. There is a long list of circumstances under which a family can have two (or in rare cases even more) children. Some provinces allow all rural families to have two children.

Other provinces allow families with a daughter to 'try again' to have a son who, according to tradition, would take care of the parents in their old age. Chinese citizens returning from overseas can have two children.

Ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Mongolians are allowed larger families. The list of exceptions is constantly updated -- the latest policy allows parents who lost a child in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to have another.

Once all the exceptions are taken into account only about 35% of China is covered by the one-child restriction. Or, to put it another way, two out of three Chinese households nationally can have more than one child.

Single-child households are hugely important to the economy, however. This is because the one-child policy is applied most strictly to large and medium cities -- where most of China's wealth is.

So the people shopping at Carrefour and buying Disney lunchboxes tend to be from single-child households. In Shanghai, for example, about 97% of households have one kid.

Most Chinese support strict population control policies
Although restrictive, there is significant popular support for the policy. Population control is generally viewed as a shared sacrifice that all families make to strengthen the nation's future. Limiting births was intended to reduce both demand on natural resources and a labor surplus, enabling economic growth. It worked. In the eyes of most Chinese, today's economic success is rooted in the tough population controls enacted three decades ago. This explains why a 2008 survey by the Pew Center shows that 76% of the Chinese population supports the policy.

Recently a number of celebrities and wealthy have flaunted the policy and had multiple kids. As well as facing some penalties and fines, they have been subject to sharp criticism. Accused of cheating, they have been called selfish, irresponsible, and insufficiently patriotic.

China's children have benefited tremendously from the policy. Parents spare no expense for their kid's future – regardless of gender. Urban Chinese girls are just as pampered as their male counterparts. Unlike in other parts of Asia, girls in China don't suffer when brothers dominate parental attention and resources.

Chinese kids aren't solitary loners
There is a downside to growing up with all this attention, however. China's single children are regularly accused of being spoiled, selfish, and antisocial. Picture a kid spending his day locked away in his bedroom typing to virtual friends but bereft of any physical human companionship.

Is it an accurate image? Partially -- particularly the reliance on online chatting. But Chinese kids aren't fundamentally solitary. They grow up surrounded by neighbors and distant cousins. Single kids commonly refer to these friends as brother or sister. Even without blood siblings Chinese kids grow up in extended communities.

The one-child policy has a big impact on parents' lives as well. Chinese urban moms are first-timers. They look for guidance from relatives and peers, and tend to do extensive research on everything from prenatal diet to brands of kid's shoes. With only one kid to care for, parents have more discretion in spending. The cost of one pampered child is, after all, still cheaper than having three. Shanghai and Beijing have started to encourage parents who are themselves single children to have two kids, but without much success.

Why? Cost. Demographics is destiny, and China is facing some serious demographic challenges. Perhaps the biggest is the disproportionate number of boys, projected to reach 30 million by 2020. But I am optimistic. Raised with abundant parental care and attention, China's single children have the resources to tackle even the biggest problems.

P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults.

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