A Generation of Little Emperors

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If you restrict families to just one child--as China has, more or less, since 1980--you're going to get a whole lot of spoiled kids. The problem in China is so acute that it's changing how society functions. To see these Little Emperors in action, step inside the Shanghai branch of the China Children's Welfare Institute, better known as the Children's Palace. On any given afternoon, parents are out in force, fawning over their immaculately dressed sons and daughters as they prepare for extracurricular classes in English, computer studies and performing arts. Though many of these precocious kids can recite the English alphabet or read newspapers in traditional Chinese characters by the time they're 10, their parents often still perform basic tasks for them: fixing their hair, tying their shoes, wiping their bottoms. The Palace, once the private home of real estate tycoon Sir Elly Kadoorie, is a remnant of Shanghai's excessive past. Built in 1924, its resplendent marble halls and expansive lawns were put to more proletarian use after the communists reopened it in 1953 as a children's recreation center. These days it caters to the overachieving offspring of Shanghai's pushiest parents. Just ask Tao Ling, a dance teacher at the Palace. At the start of class, she struggles to shoo away the doting mothers still placing the finishing touches on their daughters' braids and bows. It's impossible to do anything if they're watching, says Tao, shutting the door firmly. Mao liked children, or at least he encouraged China's citizens to have as many as possible. When a 1982 census revealed that the Chairman's baby boom had pushed the population beyond 1 billion, China put teeth into the family-planning policy it had introduced two years earlier. Some 80,000 cadres were dispersed around the country in an aggressive campaign aimed at reducing the total population to 700 million by 2050. To enforce the policy, China introduced severe economic penalties for above-quota births. Strong-arm coercion was common. Horror stories emerged about forced late-term abortions and infanticide--girls were often abandoned by parents who wished instead for a boy. China still defends the policy, though not, of course, the excesses. Annual population growth, Beijing claims, is less than half the level of the 1970s. A recent Xinhua report said the policy has saved China and the world the burden of coping with an extra 300 million people. But while attitudes have changed in the cities, they have scarcely shifted in the countryside, where the majority of China's people still reside. Its sort of an unofficial, official policy that farmers are allowed more children, says Peng Zhou, China's national program officer for the United Nations Population Fund. Peasants intent upon producing a healthy male heir are officially allowed to try again if the first child is, as Peng puts it, either deformed in some way, or a girl. Now there are signs the policy may be softening, even in urban areas. Laws requiring parents to register for permits before having a child have been eliminated in many places, and regulations have been drawn up to prohibit family planning workers in the countryside from forcing women to undergo abortions and sterilization. The world that China's kids inhabit is a far cry from that of their parents. The earlier hardships are scarcely fathomable to today's TV-watching, french-fry chomping young. Having been denied education and material goods as children, many adults wildly overcompensate in doting on their kids. Parents have a hard time saying no, says Xia Ming, who teaches environmental studies at the Children's Palace. They had nothing, so the kids are their only hope. The youngsters tend to act as if special treatment is their due. They're impossible to discipline, complains Tao, the dance instructor. Their mothers and fathers don't care. As class winds up, the young dancers comment on whether they would want a sibling, I want a little sister! several girls chirp in unison. Shu Mingzhu, a 10-year-old wearing a red leotard with matching bows, elaborates: One with big eyes, who I could play with.