THE LITTLE EMPERORS : A Generation of Spoiled Brats, a Tidal Wave of Abortions and Thousands of Missing Girls--These Are Some of the Unintended Consequences of China’s Revolutionary One-Child Policy

<i> Daniela Deane, who has two sons and lives in Hong Kong, is a free-lance writer who contributes to the Washington Post and Newsweek. Her last article for this magazine was "The Vanishing Border," about the growing integration of southern China and Hong Kong</i>

XU MING SITS ON THE WORN SOFA WITH HIS short, chubby arms and legs splayed, forced open by fat and the layers of padded clothing worn in northern China to ward off the relentless chill. To reach the floor, the tubby 8-year-old rocks back and forth on his big bottom, inching forward slowly, eventually ending upright. Xu Ming finds it hard to move.

“He got fat when he was about 3,” says his father, Xu Jianguo, holding the boy’s bloated, dimpled hand. “We were living with my parents and they were very good to him. He’s the only grandson. It’s a tradition in China that boys are very loved. They love him very much, and so they feed him a lot. They give him everything he wants.”

Xu Ming weighs 135 pounds, about twice what he should at his age. He’s one of hundreds of children who have sought help in the past few years at the Beijing Children’s Hospital, which recently began the first American-style fat farm for obese children in what was once the land of skin and bones.

“We used to get a lot of cases of malnutrition,” says Dr. Ni Guichen, director of endocrinology at the hospital and founder of the weight-reduction classes. “But in the last 10 years, the problem has become obese children. The number of fat children in China is growing very fast. The main reason is the one-child policy,” she says, speaking in a drab waiting room. “Because parents can only have one child, the families take extra good care of that one child, which means feeding him too much.”

Bulging waistlines are one result of China’s tough campaign to curb its population. The one-child campaign, a strict national directive that seeks to limit each Chinese couple to a single son or daughter, has other dramatic consequences: millions of abortions, fewer girls and a generation of spoiled children.


The 10-day weight-reduction sessions--a combination of exercise, nutritional guidance and psychological counseling--are very popular. Hundreds of children--some so fat they can hardly walk--are turned away for each class.

According to Ni, about 5% of children in China’s cities are obese, with two obese boys for every overweight girl, the traditional preference toward boys being reflected in the amount of attention lavished on the child. “Part of the course is also centered on the parents. We try to teach them how to bring their children up properly, not just by spoiling them,” Ni says.

Ming’s father is proud that his son, after two sessions at the fat farm, has managed to halve his intake of jiaozi , the stodgy meat-filled dumplings that are Ming’s particular weakness, from 30 to 15 at a sitting. “Even if he’s not full, that’s all he gets,” he says. “In the beginning, it was very difficult. He would put his arms around our necks and beg us for more food. We couldn’t bear it, so we’d give him a little more.”

Ming lost a few pounds but hasn’t been able to keep the weight off. He’s a bit slimmer now, but only because he’s taller. “I want to lose weight,” says Ming, who spends his afternoons snacking at his grandparents’ house and his evenings plopped in front of the television set at home. “The kids make fun of me, they call me a fat pig. I hate the nicknames. In sports class, I can’t do what the teacher says. I can run a little bit, but after a while I have to sit down. The teacher puts me at the front of the class where all the other kids can see me. They all laugh and make fun of me.”

The many fat children visible on China’s city streets are just the most obvious example of 13 years of the country’s one-child policy. In the vast countryside, the policy has meant shadowy lives as second-class citizens for thousands of girls or, worse, death. It has made abortion a way of life and a couple’s sexual intimacy the government’s concern. Even women’s menstrual cycles are monitored. Under the directive, couples literally have to line up for permission to procreate. Second children are sometimes possible, but only on payment of a heavy fine.

The policy is an unparalleled intrusion into the private lives of a nation’s citizens, an experiment on a scale never attempted elsewhere in the world. But no expert will argue that China--by far the world’s most populous country with 1.16 billion people--could continue without strict curbs on its population.

China’s communist government adopted the one-child policy in 1979 in response to the staggering doubling of the country’s population during Mao Tse-tung’s rule. Mao, who died in 1976, was convinced that the country’s masses were a strategic asset and vigorously encouraged the Chinese to produce even-larger families.

But large families are now out for the Chinese--20% of the world’s population living on just 7% of the arable land. “China has to have a population policy,” says Huang Baoshan, deputy director of the State Family Planning Commission. With the numbers ever growing, “how can we feed these people, clothe them, house them?”

DINNER TIME FOR ONE 5-year-old girl consists of granddad chasing her through the house, bowl and spoon in hand, barking like a dog or mewing like a cat. If he performs authentically enough, she rewards him by accepting a mouthful of food. No problem, insists granddad, “it’s good exercise for her.”

An 11-year-old boy never gets up to go to the toilet during the night. That’s because his mother, summoned by a shout, gets up instead and positions a bottle under the covers for him. “We wouldn’t want him to have to get up in the night,” his mother says.

Another mother wanted her 16-year-old to eat some fruit, but the teen-ager was engrossed in a video game. Not wanting him to get his fingers sticky or daring to interrupt, she peeled several grapes and popped one after another into his mouth. “Not so fast,” he snapped. “Can’t you see I have to spit out the seeds?”

Stories like these are routinely published in China’s newspapers, evidence that the government-imposed birth-control policy has produced an emerging generation of spoiled, lazy, selfish, self-centered and overweight children. There are about 40 million only children in China. Dubbed the country’s “Little Emperors,” their behavior toward their elders is likened to that of the young emperor Pu Yi, who heaped indignities on his eunuch servants while making them cater to his whims, as chronicled in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “The Last Emperor.”

Many studies on China’s only children have been done. One such study confirmed that only children generally are not well liked. The study, conducted by a team of Chinese psychologists, asked a group of 360 Chinese children, half who have siblings and half who don’t, to rate each other’s behavior. The only children were, without fail, the least popular, regardless of age or social background. Peers rated them more uncooperative and selfish than children with brothers and sisters. They bragged more, were less helpful in group activities and more apt to follow their own selfish interests. And they wouldn’t share their toys.

The Chinese lay a lot of blame on what they call the “4-2-1" syndrome--four doting grandparents, two overindulgent parents, all pinning their hopes and ambitions on one child.

Besides stuffing them with food, Chinese parents have very high expectations of their one bao bei, or treasured object. Some have their still-in-strollers babies tested for IQ levels. Others try to teach toddlers Tang Dynasty poetry. Many shell out months of their hard-earned salaries for music lessons and instruments for children who have no talent or interest in playing. They fill their kids’ lives with lessons in piano, English, gymnastics and typing.

The one-child parents, most of them from traditionally large Chinese families, grew up during the chaotic, 10-year Cultural Revolution, when many of the country’s cultural treasures were destroyed and schools were closed for long periods of time. Because many of that generation spent years toiling in the fields rather than studying, they demand--and put all their hopes into--academic achievement for their children.

“We’ve already invested a lot of money in his intellectual development,” Wang Zhouzhi told me in her Spartan home in a tiny village of Changping county outside Beijing, discussing her son, Chenqian, an only child. “I don’t care how much money we spend on him. We’ve bought him an organ and we push him hard. Unfortunately, he’s only a mediocre student,” she says, looking toward the 10-year-old boy. Chenqian, dressed in a child-sized Chinese army uniform, ate 10 pieces of candy during the half-hour interview and repeatedly fired off his toy pistol, all without a word of reproach from his mother.

Would Chenqian have liked a sibling to play with? “No,” he answers loudly, firing a rapid, jarring succession of shots. His mother breaks in: “If he had a little brother or sister, he wouldn’t get everything he wants. Of course he doesn’t want one. With only one child, I give my full care and concern to him.”

But how will these children, now entering their teen-age years and moving quickly toward adulthood, become the collectivist-minded citizens China’s hardline communist leadership demands? Some think they never will. Ironically, it may be just these overindulged children who will change Chinese society. After growing up doing as they wished, ruling their immediate families, they’re not likely to obey a central government that tells them to fall in line. This new generation of egotists, who haven’t been taught to take even their parents into consideration, simply may not be able to think of the society as a whole--the basic principle of communism.

THE NEED FOR FAMILY PLANNING IS OBVIOUS IN THE CITIES, where living space is limited and the one-child policy is strictly enforced and largely successful. City dwellers are slowly beginning to accept the notion that smaller families are better for the country, although most would certainly want two children if they could have them. However, in the countryside, where three of every four Chinese live--nearly 900 million people--the goal of limiting each couple to only one child has proved largely elusive.

In the hinterlands, the policy has become a confusing patchwork of special cases and exceptions. Provincial authorities can decide which couples can have a second child. In the southern province of Guangdong, China’s richest, two children are allowed and many couples can afford to pay the fine to have even a third or fourth child. The amounts of the fines vary across the country, the highest in populous Sichuan province, where the fine for a second child can be as much as 25% of a family’s income over four years. Special treatment has been given to China’s cultural minorities such as the Mongolians and the Tibetans because of their low numbers. Many of them are permitted three or four children without penalty, although some Chinese social scientists have begun to question the privilege.

“It’s really become a two-child policy in the countryside,” says a Western diplomat. “Because of the traditional views on labor supply, the traditional bias toward the male child, it’s been impossible for them to enforce a one-child policy outside the cities. In the countryside, they’re really trying to stop that third child.”

Thirteen years of strict family planning have created one of the great mysteries of the vast and remote Chinese countryside: Where have all the little girls gone? A Swedish study of sex ratios in China, published in 1990, and based on China’s own census data, concluded that several million little girls are “missing"--up to half a million a year in the years 1985 to 1987--since the policy was introduced in late 1979.

In the study, and in demographic research worldwide, sex ratio at birth in humans is shown to be very stable, between 105 and 106 boys for every 100 girls. The imbalance is thought to be nature’s way of compensating for the higher rates of miscarriage, stillbirth and infant mortality among boys.

In China, the ratio climbed consistently during the 1980s, and it now rests at more than 110 boys to 100 girls. “The imbalance is evident in some areas of the country,” says Stirling Scruggs, director of the United Nations Population Fund in China. “I don’t think the reason is widespread infanticide. They’re adopting out girls to try for a boy, they’re hiding their girls, they’re not registering them. Throughout Chinese history, in times of famine, and now as well, people have been forced to make choices between boys and girls, and for many reasons, boys always win out.”

With the dismantling of collectives, families must, once again, farm their own small plots and sons are considered necessary to do the work. Additionally, girls traditionally “marry out” of their families, transferring their filial responsibilities to their in-laws. Boys carry on the family name and are entrusted with the care of their parents as they age. In the absence of a social security system, having a son is the difference between starving and eating when one is old. To combat the problem, some innovative villages have begun issuing so-called “girl insurance,” an old-age insurance policy for couples who have given birth to a daughter and are prepared to stop at that.

“People are scared to death to be childless and penniless in their old age,” says William Hinton, an American author of seven books chronicling modern China. “So if they don’t have a son, they immediately try for another. When the woman is pregnant, they’ll have a sex test to see if it’s a boy or a girl. They’ll abort a girl, or go in hiding with the girl, or pay the fine, or bribe the official or leave home. Anything. It’s a game of wits.”

Shen Shufen, a sturdy, round-faced peasant woman of 33, has two children--an 8-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy--and lives in Sihe, a dusty, one-road, mud-brick village in the countryside outside Beijing. Her husband is a truck driver. “When we had our girl, we knew we had to have another child somehow. We saved for years to pay the fine. It was hard giving them that money, 3,000 yuan, ($550 in U.S. dollars) in one night. That’s what my husband makes in three years. I was so happy when our second child was a boy.”

The government seems aware of the pressure its policies put on expectant parents, and the painful results, but has not shown any flexibility. For instance, Beijing in 1990 passed a law forbidding doctors to tell a couple the results of ultrasound tests that disclose the sex of their unborn child. The reason: Too many female embryos were being aborted.

And meanwhile, several hundred thousand women--called “guerrilla moms"--go into hiding every year to have their babies. They become part of China’s 40-million-strong floating population that wanders the country, mostly in search of work, sleeping under bridges and in front of railway stations. Tens of thousands of female children are simply abandoned in rural hospitals.

And although most experts say female infanticide is not widespread, it does exist. “I found a dead baby girl,” says Hinton. “We stopped for lunch at this mountain ravine in Shaanxi province. We saw her lying there, at the bottom of the creek bed. She was all bundled up, with one arm sticking out. She had been there a while, you could tell, because she had a little line of mold growing across her mouth and nostrils.” Death comes in another form, too: neglect. “It’s female neglect, more than female infanticide, neglect to the point of death for little girls,” says Scruggs of the U.N. Population Fund. “If you have a sick child, and it’s a girl,” he says, “you might buy only half the dose of medicine she needs to get better.”

Hundreds of thousands of unregistered little girls--called “black children"--live on the edge of the law, unable to get food rations, immunizations or places in school. Many reports are grim. The government-run China News Service reported last year that the drowning of baby girls had revived to such an extent in Guangxi province that at least 1 million boys will be unable to find wives in 20 years. And partly because of the gender imbalance, the feudalistic practice of selling women has been revived.

The alarming growth of the flesh trade prompted authorities to enact a law in January that imposes jail sentences of up to 10 years and heavy fines for people caught trafficking. The government also recently began broadcasting a television dramatization to warn women against the practice. The public-service message shows two women, told that they would be given high-paying jobs, being lured to a suburban home. Instead, they are locked in a small, dark room, and soon realize that they have been sold.

LI WANGPING IS NERVOUS. SHE KEEPS LOOKING AT THE AIR vents at the bottom of the office door, to see if anyone is walking by or, worse still, standing there listening. She rubs her hands together over and over. She speaks in a whisper. “I’m afraid to get into trouble talking to you,” Li confides. She says nothing for a few minutes.

“After my son was born, I desperately wanted another baby,” the 42-year-old woman finally begins. “I just wanted to have more children, you understand? Anyway, I got pregnant three times, because I wasn’t using any birth control. I didn’t want to use any. So, I had to have three abortions, one right after the other. I didn’t want to at all. It was terrible killing the babies I wanted so much. But I had to.”

By Chinese standards, Li (not her real name) has a lot to lose if she chooses to follow her maternal yearnings. As an office worker at government-owned CITIC, a successful and dynamic conglomerate, she has one of the best jobs in Beijing. Just being a city-dweller already puts her ahead of most of the population.

“One of my colleagues had just gotten fired for having a second child. I couldn’t afford to be fired,” continues Li, speaking in a meeting room at CITIC headquarters. “I had to keep everything secret from the family-planning official at CITIC, from everyone at the office. Of course, I’m supposed to be using birth control. I had to lie. It was hard lying, because I felt so bad about everything.”

She rubs her hands furiously and moves toward the door, staring continuously at the air slats. “I have to go now. There’s more to say, but I’m afraid to tell you. They could find me.”

China’s family-planning officials wield awesome powers, enforcing the policy through a combination of incentives and deterrents. For those who comply, there are job promotions and small cash awards. For those who resist, they suffer stiff fines and loss of job and status within the country’s tightly knit and heavily regulated communities. The State Family Planning Commission is the government ministry entrusted with the tough task of curbing the growth of the world’s most populous country, where 28 children are born every minute. It employs about 200,000 full-time officials and uses more than a million volunteers to check the fertility of hundreds of millions of Chinese women.

“Every village or enterprise has at least one family-planning official,” says Zhang Xizhi, a birth-control official in Changping county outside Beijing. “Our main job is propaganda work to raise people’s consciousness. We educate people and tell them their options for birth control. We go down to every household to talk to people. We encourage them to have only one child, to marry late, to have their child later.”

China’s population police frequently keep records of the menstrual cycles of women of childbearing age, on the type of birth control they use and the pending applications to have children. If they slip up, street committees--half-governmental, half-civilian organizations that have sprung up since the 1949 Communist takeover--take up the slack. The street committees, made up mostly of retired volunteers, act as the central government’s ear to the ground, snooping, spying and reporting on citizens to the authorities.

When a couple wants to have a child--even their first, allotted one--they must apply to the family-planning office in their township or workplace, literally lining up to procreate. “If a woman gets pregnant without permission, she and her husband will get fined, even if it’s their first,” Zhang says. “It is fair to fine her, because she creates a burden on the whole society by jumping her place in line.”

If a woman in Nanshao township, where Zhang works, becomes pregnant with a second child, she must terminate the pregnancy unless she or her husband or their first child is disabled or if both parents are only children. Her local family-planning official will repeatedly visit her at home to pressure her to comply. “Sometimes I have to go to people’s homes five or six times to explain everything to them over and over to get them to have an abortion,” says Zhang Cuiqing, the family-planning official for Sihe village, where there are 2,900 married women of childbearing age, of which 2,700 use some sort of birth control. Of those, 570 are sterilized and 1,100 have IUDs. Zhang recites the figures proudly, adding, “If they refuse, they will be fined between 20,000 and 50,000 yuan (U.S. $3,700 to $9,500).” The average yearly wage in Sihe is 1,500 yuan ($285).

The lack of early sexual education and unreliable IUDs are combining to make abortion--which is free, as are condoms and IUDS--a cornerstone of the one-child policy. Local officials are told not to use force, but rather education and persuasion, to meet their targets. However, the desire to fulfill their quotas, coupled with pressure from their bosses in Beijing, can lead to abuses by overzealous officials.

“Some local family-planning officials are running amok, because of the targets they have to reach,” a Western health specialist says, “and there are a bunch of people willing to turn a blind eye to abuses because the target is so important.”

The official Shanghai Legal Daily last year reported on a family-planning committee in central Sichuan province that ordered the flogging of the husbands of 10 pregnant women who refused to have abortions. According to the newspaper, the family-planning workers marched the husbands one by one into an empty room, ordered them to strip and lie on the floor and then beat them with a stick, once for every day their wives were pregnant.

“In some places, yes, things do happen,” concedes Huang of the State Family Planning Commission. “Sometimes, family-planning officials do carry it too far.”

THE YOUNG WOMAN lies still on the narrow table with her eyes shut and her legs spread while the doctor quickly performs a suction abortion. A few moments, and the fetus is removed. The woman lets out a short, sharp yell. “OK, next,” the doctor says.

She gets off the table and, holding a piece of cloth between her legs to catch the blood and clutching her swollen womb, hobbles over to a bed and collapses. The next patient gets up and walks toward the abortion table. No one notices a visitor watching. “It’s very quick, it only takes about five minutes per abortion,” says Dr. Huang Xiaomiao, chief physician at Beijing’s Maternity Hospital. “No anesthetic. We don’t use anesthetic for abortions or births here. Only for Cesarean sections, we use acupuncture.”

Down the hall, 32-year-old Wu Guobin waits to be taken into the operating room to have her Fallopian tubes untied--a reversal of an earlier sterilization. “After my son was killed in an accident last year, the authorities in my province said I could try for another.” In the bed next to Wu’s, a dour-faced woman looks ready to cry. “She’s getting sterilized,” the nurse explains. “Her husband doesn’t want her to, but her first child has mental problems.”

Although it’s a maternity hospital, the Family Planning Unit--where abortions, sterilizations, IUD insertions and the like are carried out--is the busiest department. “We do more abortions than births,” says Dr. Fan Huimin, head of the unit. “Between 10 and 20 a day.”

Abortions are a way of life in China, where about 10.5 million pregnancies are terminated each year. (In the United States, 1.6 million abortions are performed a year, but China’s population is four to five times greater than the United States’.) One fetus is aborted for about every two children born and Chinese women often have several abortions. Usually, abortions are performed during the first trimester. But because some women resist, only to cave in under mental bullying further into their terms, abortions are also done in the later months of pregnancy, sometimes up till the eighth month.

Because of their population problem, the Chinese have become pioneers in contraceptive research. China will soon launch its own version of the controversial French abortion pill RU-486, which induces a miscarriage. They have perfected a non-scalpel procedure for male sterilization, with no suture required, allowing the man to “ride his bicycle home within five minutes.” This year, the government plans to spend more than the $34 million it spent last year on contraception. The state will also buy some 961 million condoms to be distributed throughout the country, 11% more than in 1991.

But even with a family-planning policy that sends a chill down a Westerner’s spine and touches every Chinese citizen’s life, 64,000 babies are born every day in China and overpopulation continues to be a paramount national problem. Officials have warned that 24 million children will be born in 1992--a number just slightly less than the population of Canada. “The numbers are staggering,” says Scruggs, the U.N. Population Fund official, noting that “170 million people will be added in the 1990s, which is the current population of England, France and Italy combined. There are places in China where the land can’t feed that many more people as it is.”

China estimates that it has prevented 200 million births since the one-child policy was introduced. Women now are having an average of 2.4 children as compared to six in the late ‘60s. But the individual sacrifice demanded from every Chinese is immense.

Large billboards bombard the population with images of happy families with only one child. The government is desperately trying to convince the masses that producing only one child leads to a wealthier, healthier and happier life. But foreigners in China tell a different story, that the people aren’t convinced. They tell of being routinely approached--on the markets, on the streets, on the railways--and asked about the contraceptive policies of their countries. Expatriate women in Beijing all tell stories of Chinese women enviously asking them how many sons they have and how many children they plan to have. They explain that they only have one child because the government allows them only one.

“When I’m out with my three children on the weekend,” says a young American father who lives in Beijing, “people are always asking me why am I allowed to have three children. You can feel when they ask you that there is envy there. There’s a natural disappointment among the people. They just want to have more children. But there’s a resigned understanding, an acceptance that they just can’t.”