ChinaWatch: Growing up in a brewing social disaster
This column is the first of a monthly series we’ll be running on what’s happening in China from a political, social, environmental, music and arts perspective. If you’d like to contribute to the series, know of some great links, websites, magazines, contacts or just harbor a passion for China, feel free to drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today in China there are approximately 123,509,752 children under 14 years of age. By the end of this year, 20 million others will be born.
Thanks to the one-child policy, 70 per cent of these children will go through life without a sibling. The average Chinese parent will spend up to two-fifths of their yearly income to educate them.
By 2040, this generation will form part of a minority: the workforce of a country that has grown old before reaching its full economic potential. Here’s how they’re growing up.
Some Chinese children are subject to the “tiger mother”. A term first coined by Amy Chua, the American/Chinese novelist, from controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. A book that provided unforgettable insight into the mentality of the Chinese parent: super-strict, often brutal and always unrelenting.
Others are akin to a protected species, a generation of “precious snowflakes” unable to tie their shoelaces, play outside without special protection gear and get flustered when asked to perform any household or routine task.
Now meet Chen Leshui and Deng Xinyi. These ten-year-old schoolgirls are an exception to both these rules. Anyone who ever spent even a portion of their younger years trying to outsmart their parents will enjoy their story.
Chen and Deng have written a book - a guide for navigating life with a Chinese parent. Using hand-drawn illustrations on several pages of a scrappy exercise book, the pair came up with, “20 strategies to deflect a scolding from your mother”. A combination of what they describe as “hard” and “soft” methods, along with recommendations for use. For example: Slipping a note under a bedroom door to say sorry, is described as “so, so”. While bursting into song mid-punishment “takes a lot of guts and should be tried very infrequently.”
According to The Australian, Chen was inspired to write the book after a humiliating incident following the results of an exam paper her mother considered not up to scratch: “My mom picked up my exam paper and said, “Your friends will all laugh at you.”
By Chinese standards, in speaking out against their parents Chen and Deng are unusual. Even more surprisingly, the book’s success is due to Chen’s father, who posted it on the Chinese version of Twitter. He claims to have been proud of his daughter for sharing her voice, and insists that his wife is no “dragon”.
But these admissions in themselves are a revelation. For many Chinese children, life at home can be tough going.
Take the parenting style of Xiao Baiyou. The father-of-four who recently wrote a book declaring he had proudly beat all four of his children to ensure them a successful entrance to the University of Peking.
For most Western folk, China’s approach to children, childhood and parenting makes us uncomfortable. But according to Amy Chua, the explanation lies in different expectations of the parent-child relationship, and a traditional sense of Confucian “filial loyalty”:
“The Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away,” she told The Washington Journal last year.
Chairman Mao’s 1979 one-child policy has a lot to answer for. Thirty years ago, the policy was considered a necessary and effective stop-gap on a population that was spiralling dangerously out of control. Today, it’s doing more harm than good.
People can still be fined a “social compensation fee” for having more than one child - at a cost of up to nine times family’s annual income, depending on where they live.
These circumstances could have a potentially devastating effect on China’s future. They now face a rapidly ageing population, and a disturbingly low female-to-male ratio.
It has also had a huge effect on the way Chinese children are being raised. For most Chinese parents, the policy has also meant a life-long and often financially crippling investment in their only child. Like the family in this story who relied on the income of six different family members to support their child’s upbringing.
So just where does all of this leave the next generation of Chinese? All highly educated and bearing the full weight of their parents’ (and extended families) expectations, dreams and financial security. As well as the weight and welfare of a nation of which they, as the workforce, are a minority for the first time in history.
To say it will be tough is an understatement. Perhaps there is method in the Tiger Mother’s madness after all.
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