One-child China's little emperors may be paying a big psychological price


A familiar sight in China is of a baby boy, often dressed as an army general or an emperor, surrounded by a group of adoring adults.

Popular wisdom has it that the “little emperors” born since the One Child Policy was introduced in 1979 are selfish, lazy and basically useless.

Now a report in the journal Science says the little emperors are indeed less trusting, less competitive, more pessimistic, less conscientious and more risk-averse than people born before the policy was implemented.

This makes them less likely to take risks in the labour market and possibly fewer entrepreneurs.

“Trust is really important, not just social interactions but in terms of negotiations in business, working with colleagues in business, negotiating between firms,” said one of the authors, Lisa Cameron, of Monash University.

“If we have lower levels of trust, that could make these kinds of negotiations and interactions more difficult.”

Extended family

The authors recruited 421 Beijing men and women who were born within an eight-year period that included dates just before and just after the policy took effect in 1979.

About 27 per cent of the participants born in 1975 were the only child in their families, rising to 82 per cent of those born in 1980 and 91 per cent of those born in 1983.

Children born long after 1979 will have grown up with a limited extended family. So the psychological effects of the one-child policy “would, if anything, be magnified”.

China’s national fertility rate is about 1.7, way below the replacement level of 2.1. Couples who break the one-child policy rule have to pay a fine, the “social maintenance fee” as it is known and lose education and health benefits.

Only parents who are themselves only children are allowed to have a second child, but under a new raft of changes, couples will be able to have a second child even if one of them is not an only child.

The National Population and Family Planning Commission says some 400 million births have been prevented by the one-child policy.

Many ethnic minorities are allowed to have two children, and there are no restrictions on the number of children that Tibetans can have.

However, demographers believe these exceptions will have to be expanded or the policy scrapped. But there are signs of change.

Last year, a prominent government think tank urged China’s leaders to start phasing out the policy and allow two children for every family by 2015.