The little emperor grows selfish

2005: China - The one-child policy was to benefit the nation, but it has also spawned uncivil indivi

Sparkling, marble-lined shopping malls and cutting-edge art installations, oriental elegance in interior design, global chic on the catwalk: China's social and cultural transformation dazzles the world with its displays of wealth and opportunity. Central to these images of elite consumerism is the urban singleton, product of the government's family planning programme. Increased consumer capacity was long ago presented as one of the advantages of having only one child. Cautionary tales about the "little emperor" aside, the coupling of smaller families with increased spending power, better education and higher status has been a repeated refrain of the government's single-child policy on birth control since it was introduced in 1979.

Other, more sober images tell a different story, from baby girls abandoned on the steps of orphanages to young, rural women sold into marriage thousands of miles away from home. Grossly distorted sex ratios, as high as 130 boys to 100 girls, have been reported in certain areas: official estimates are that, by 2020, there will be an army of between 30 and 40 million bachelors unable to find wives. An ageing society means more pressure on China's inadequate pensions and healthcare.

A pivotal assumption is that China's social transformation, and the polarised effects of this transformation, derive from the linked programmes of birth control and market reform. The increasingly nuclear structure of the family is seen as an emblem of China's "modernisation", and thus a qualitative departure from previous socialist practice, but it is not that simple. Though the sharp drop in family size is due to the state's policing of human reproduction since 1979 - largely through targeting women's bodies by the coercive use of sterilisation, abortion and IUD contraception - it also has direct links with strategies that date from the early days of the communist state.

Brief campaigns in the 1950s and the early 1960s established the groundwork for official approaches to birth control, and were followed by the more rigorous approach of the "later, longer, fewer" policy between 1971 and 1978. Initially allowed to have three children, rural couples were in 1977 restricted to two, reducing overall fertility levels from six to just under three children per woman. In 1979, post-Mao, the government insisted that a further reduction of fertility levels to 1.7 was indispensable if living standards were to be improved. At first, couples were encouraged to have one child, but this soon gave way to more coercive measures. In the first three years of the 1980s there was an extensive sterilisation programme, particularly targeting rural women.

With families resisting, or evading, this policy, the rules were then relaxed to permit rural couples to have a second child if their first was a girl. Further exceptions allowing peasants to have a second child were introduced during the late 1980s, though townspeople are still limited to a single child. But that, too, may be changing. Recent decisions made by Shanghai's municipal government indicate that the policy is moving into a new phase.

As the government works out a new strategy of population control, due to be initiated next year, Shanghai couples are now allowed to have two children, too. State control over reproductive behaviour has been so pervasive in China for so long that people have come to accept it in their daily lives. Most rural families now agree on the need for some measure of control.

The enforced reduction of fertility rates to a national average of 1.7, and the effects of this on the changing shape of the family, are often presented as both the achievement and the terrible cost of the era after Mao. However, this obscures the history of the transformation, and its contemporary complexity. Traditional family structures have been profoundly changed by other policies implemented since the early 1950s. These reforms did not, as the anthropologist Yan Yunxiang points out, result in the new type of "socialist family" claimed in the official discourse of the time. They nevertheless did produce deep, though uneven, changes in family relations and family ideology.

The younger generation, most notably women, acquired increasing autonomy and authority. The decline of parental controls, the free choice of marriage partner and the "conjugal independence" that emerged during the collective era (1958-80) was accompanied by the emergence of individual identity. This survived in the years after Mao, Yan argues, because decollectivisation restored "only family farming, not the entire familial mode of social organisation". Thus, a complex network of changing practices cuts across the conventional boundary drawn bet-ween the Maoist and market periods.

The status of women in the household has increased, whether as wives with greater decision-making powers over family affairs or as daughters - usually regarded as "wasted goods" - with improved employment and economic prospects. Yet for every success story of the new family, there are many others that reveal tension, fragmentation and neglect. The older generation has suffered, as its children use their new spending power strictly in their own interests.

Reduced family size may improve the economic and social status of individual family members, but it is also producing what Yan calls the "uncivil individual" whose sense of individual rights may take little account of a parent's need for support. When there is no state pension to rely on, this change from traditional practices has potentially devastating consequences.

Harriet Evans is professor of Chinese cultural studies at Westminster University