China’s one-child policy is just over 30 years old, which means that a whole generation of sibling-less adults is now coming of age and taking over the business world and government.
Imagine a generation made up entirely of only children! By and large, Chinese young people today have no understanding of sharing with siblings—and they have been doted upon by parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles their whole lives. Because of this you have “a lot of spoiled brats running around … especially in the cities,” says Lawrence Delson, a professor specializing in Chinese business at New York University. Combine this with the blossoming of a materialistic consumer class, and you get what Delson refers to as the “Me Generation.”
There is even a name in Mandarin to describe this phenomenon: xiao huangdi, or “little emperors.” Susan Greenhalgh, professor of anthropology at UC-Irvine, says that this generation of little emperors and empresses are “talented and savvy, but also spoiled and self-centered.” In an opinion piece for PBS, she writes, “As the preferred gender, boys seem to have developed a strong sense of entitlement. Feeling entitled to their privileges and empowered by their parents’ dependence on them for future support, some have taken youth rebellion to extremes. Although rare, there have been instances of children not just talking back to their parents, but striking and even murdering them for such perceived injustices as getting their dinner on the table late.”
Reports like this one would have been unheard of several decades ago. “China is still a very traditional society, very Confucian,” says Delson. “If you no longer have older brothers or sisters, does that tear down the hierarchical nature of Chinese society and tear away at the fabric of society?” And what happens if the traditional Confucian fabric is worn away? What is left to fall back on?” he asks.
And what about the consequences of a government run by only children? Could a whole generation of only children influence policy? “China will become more assertive and less compromising because of this one-child policy,” Delson believes. “You will see greater assertiveness and potentially less compromise, particularly in trade policy.”