Why Are “Little Emperors” Killing Themselves?

They’re called “Little Emperors” — children whose experience has been shaped by the twin forces of increasing financial prosperity and the Chinese government policy dictating that they are only children — and the first real generation of them is coming of age. They are arguably the richest and best-educated generation of Chinese ever. So why are they killing themselves in record numbers?

Horror stories abound about the selfish, socially awkward, and materialist tendencies of China’s younger generation. They are the beneficiaries and the victims of the One Child Policy, China’s thirty-year-old population control initiative, which focuses their parents attentions (both good and bad) on them from the day they are born until the day their parents die. Critiques of the policy abound, but one of the most frequently-voiced concerns is that when these kids grow up (as some of them already have) the nation is going to be overrun with a bunch of spoiled brats.

Interestingly, that might not be anything to worry about. A 2008 article in Psychology Today reports:

Despite the stereotype […] research has revealed no evidence that only kids have more negative traits than their peers with siblings—in China or anywhere else. “The only way only children are reliably different from others is they score slightly higher in academic achievement,” explains Toni Falbo, a University of Texas psychology professor who has gathered data on more than 4,000 Chinese only kids. Sure, some little emperors are bratty, but no more than children with siblings.

The Downside of High Expectations

A much bigger problem, and one perhaps less frequently discussed, is the intense pressure these children face to excel, and the perhaps more intense disappointment and depression that comes when they are grown and confronted with the reality that not everyone can succeed in a nation that produces 4 million university graduates each year but only 1.6 million new college level jobs.

Parents face increased pressure too, since many plan to rely on their children for financial support in their old age. One child means that they have only one shot. Parenting approaches vary, sometimes to extremes, on both ends of the spectrum, with some parents spoiling their kids rotten while others attend classes with them daily to be sure that they are constantly paying attention. Many parents fill their children’s after-school hours– those that aren’t already full with homework — with review classes or supplementary resume-boosters like piano or art lessons. Although the government has, in recent years, encouraged people to let their kids play every now and then, it’s a hard sell. Everyone wants their kid to go to college, and with 9.5 million applicants and only 2.6 million spots (2006), it may be hard for many parents to justify a break.

The problem is that success isn’t as simple as getting into college anymore, especially with the world economy sliding. Even college graduates are having a very hard time finding work. As Vanessa Fong, author of Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-Child Policy, put it, “In this generation, every child is raised to be at the top. They’ve worked hard for it, and it’s what their parents have focused their lives on. But the problem is that the country can’t provide the lifestyle they feel they deserve. Only a few will get it.”

Depression is a common (and understandable) reaction from the kids themselves, given that many Chinese students spend their pre-college lives more or less exclusively studying for the GaoKao, that all-important university entrance exam. To spend your whole life studying for something and then fail it — or, perhaps even worse, pass it and discover college doesn’t promise you the bright future you’ve been told it would — can be psychologically devastating, and the results in China are plainly evident.

Some students abandon their schooling almost entirely in favor of online realms that may offer some sanctuary from parental pressure and disappointment with society. This problem has been widely reported in the West, and the Chinese government has taken steps to address it including discussing recognizing internet addiction as a disease and building boot camp-like rehab centers to reform the afflicted.

A more serious problem, though, is the rising suicide rate. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among those aged 20 to 35, and China’s overall suicide rate ranks among the highest in the world. There appears to be a direct correlation between this and the high-pressure environment many Chinese urban youth find themselves in; according to the China Daily:

A two-year survey by researchers at Peking University found over 20 percent of 140,000 high-school students interviewed said they had considered committing suicide. And 6.5 percent of the students surveyed said they had made plans to kill themselves.

The Psychology Today article (more recent than the 2007 China Daily piece cited above) cites even more grim statistics: “A study by the Society Survey Institute of China concluded that over 25 percent of university students have had suicidal thoughts, compared to 6 percent in the United States.” They also report “the news agency Xinhua estimates there are 30 million Chinese under 17 with significant mental-health problems,” although the original Xinhua piece is not cited.

It continues:

Faced with bleak prospects, elite only children often don’t know how to cope; they’ve been brought up to do only one thing: succeed. Indeed, in a 2007 survey on stress in young people by the Chinese Internet portal Sina.com, most respondents—56 percent—blamed their misery on the gap between China’s developing-world reality and their own high expectations.

Expectations may be difficult to change in this generation, which has been promised a China whose opportunities rival those of America (of course, with the American economy in its current state, perhaps this is just a case of “be careful what you wish for”). The government could release some of the pressure through reforming the education system, the question is how.

Can Education Reform Solve the Problem?

Lots of reforms have been suggested, but many of the suggestions are impractical or otherwise difficult to implement on a national scale in a nation as massive as China. Recently, Study-in-China.org collected common, recent education reform suggestions, some of which may serve to illustrate the difficulty of alleviating academic pressures through systemic reform. Among their suggestions:

  • Primary and high school students should be released from heavy burdens of homework

While reducing homework loads is a good idea, according to Psychology Today‘s report, required homework may not make up a significant percentage of the homework Chinese students do every night: “Out of Yanming Lin’s five hours of schoolwork per night, four hours went to ‘voluntary’ homework designed to boost test scores. The extra homework is not required by the teacher, explains Lin. ‘But all the other students do the extra homework, so if you do not do it you will lag behind.'” The high level of competition for college spots virtually ensures that a reduction of required homework would be met by vigilant parents with an increase in extra classes, voluntary homework, or other education-based activities.

  • The college admissions system should be reformed to something similar to the American system, where students are judged on more than simply test scores.

Such a system would indeed be ideal, as the current system lacks any sort of qualitative analysis of students, nor does it take into account their unique backgrounds, abilities, and talents in the way the American system does. However, the sheer number of students applying to college yearly in China make implementation of the American system virtually impossible. “Name brand” colleges would likely be overrun with applications from literally millions of prospective students; any real qualitative analysis of applicants would be complicated by vast numbers of applications. Admissions offices at competitive American colleges are already swamped, but it seems safe to assume that, were China to institute a similar system, the number of applications Beijing University or Qinghua University would dwarf Harvard’s application pile by hundreds of thousands.

That, of course, doesn’t mean China couldn’t adopt elements of the American or other, more qualitative, college admissions systems, but the more complex the system becomes, the more expensive it also becomes as colleges have to pay larger and larger armies of staff to evaluate applications. Such a system would also be less transparent than the current system, perhaps not ideal for a country that already struggles with corruption on almost every front.

One of the more compelling ideas is to implement widespread, high-quality vocational schools and training programs. This would potentially take some of the pressure off of colleges, might help realign the expectations of the young urban middle-class “emperors”, and could potentially also decrease unemployment. It’s not exactly the high-tech economy of white-collar scientists some Chinese people may have been hoping for. But Chinese people, especially students, are killing themselves at an alarming rate. In the end, something will have to give.

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