Aurora Magazine

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Published in May-Jun 2013

Lonely men, leftover women and little emperors

The unintended consequences of China's one-child policy.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

In a country like ours where overpopulation is as rampant as jalebi, truck art and shaadi halls, there are many who may admire China’s stringent one-child policy. A month ago, I counted myself among them… and then Y&R flew me out to Shanghai for a strategy workshop, where I discovered the strange-but-true fact of the matter: Being a young person in China is like being part of a sociological experiment gone terribly wrong.

Oh brother, where art thou?

Imagine if you will a world where the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ don’t exist. Sounds like something out of Twilight Zone, but it is a reality for most young urban Chinese. China instituted its one-child policy in 1979 to bring its overpopulation under control. Arriving in Shanghai, I had heard of the policy, but like most people, I had not considered what it meant.

There are many stereotypes about only children. They like to be the centre of attention, they are lonely, they are maladjusted and they are spoiled brats. Picture an entire generation of kids growing up this way. There is a term for this: The Little Emperor Syndrome. As Jane Macartney (China correspondent of NYT) put it:

“Ice-creams and piano lessons, designer sneakers and a flat of their own: these are some of the extras that China’s only children receive from their doting families. The one-child policy has created a generation of little emperors.”

I met and befriended one such emperor on the streets of Shanghai, a fascinating young programmer named Lee. On my last evening in Shanghai, we were leaving the Westin Hotel when Lee decided to jump on the grand piano and start playing. He told me how his parents made him learn the piano and the violin when he was young. Studies suggest that only children face more pressure from their parents. But in a country full of emperor children, this pressure too has its own term: ‘4-2-1’. Four grandparents, two parents and one child that will one day have to support them. Oh, and speaking of pressure and math that doesn’t add up…

25 vs. 27

Imagine if you will a world in which 25% of adult men may never get married. Welcome to China in the year 2020, by which time, it is estimated there will be 30-35 million more adult men than women… that’s an army of single men equal to the current population of Canada! It’s due to a lethal combination of hundreds of years of gender discrimination, exacerbated by the one-child policy and increased access to ultrasounds and abortions (allowing couples to abort if it’s a girl). What sad irony that all this preferential treatment for boys has actually led to this perfect storm of lonely men, the vast majority of them being poor.

What about the women? With so many eligible men, they must have it made, right? Not quite. Young, successful women in China are increasingly under threat because if they don’t get married by 27, the Chinese government labels them as sheng nu or ‘leftover women’. Twenty-nine-year-old Huang Yuanyuan sums up this dilemma best.

“A-quality guys will find B-quality women, B-quality guys will find C-quality women, and C-quality men will find D-quality women.”

So as Chinese men ‘marry down’ in age and education, “The people left are A-quality women and D-quality men.” It’s these A-quality women who get their Master’s and pursue careers who are under immense pressure to find a husband. Pressure laid on them by family, friends and yes, the Chinese government.

What will become of the emperor children?

Dating show contestant Ma Nuo proclaimed in 2010, “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW, than laugh on the back of a bicycle.”

Most Chinese women look for successful men. The army of poor, lonely men continues to grow, as do successful ‘leftover women’. What will become of these emperor children? Time will tell as China’s bold sociological experiment continues to unfold.

Qasim Makkani is Director, Creative and Strategy, Spectrum Y&R.