Chinese appear confident: only children won't be spoiled children. Communal way of life can stem selfishness, leaders say

Are new generations of spoiled, self-centered children without brothers or sisters about to fill China? Will the titles of cousin, nephew, niece, uncle, and aunt become increasingly rare in the world's most populous country?

These are two of the questions prompted by China's new and controversial government policy to encourage couples to have one child each -- and no more.

China -- with a population of 1.034 billion, according to figures just released by the State Family Planning Commission -- has adopted the policy in a dramatic effort to slow down population growth for the next two generations.

The aim is to hold the population figure to 1.2 billion until at least the year 2000.

Family planning officials in Peking say that if couples are permitted to have two children, China would have 1.3 billion people by 2000 -- that is, an extra 100 million, the size of Nigeria's population. And China's population could reach 1.7 billion before growth leveled off -- the equivalent of two extra Soviet Unions, or four extra Western Europes.

Questions about spoiled children came up repeatedly during a recent 12-day, eight-city tour of northern, central, and southwestern China by a dozen international correspondents and other Americans affiliated with the Population Institute in Washington, D.C.

The answers are unclear, as much about China is to the outside world. Chinese officials themselves appear confident that their own communal, Confucian way of life can stem the development of selfishness in their young people.

In a town near the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, the director of Sichuan family planning, Jiang Ziyu, showed this reporter a video film designed to help children learn proper social behavior.

Mobile units take the film across the huge province (population 100 million). At each showing viewers see kindergarten children sharing, being considerate of others, respecting the teacher, loving their country, and working diligently.

The film also portrays the negative side, showing a boy puppet blundering around the classroom, knocking over chairs and grabbing toys. The message: Don't be like him -- be like the other children.

``We think this helps show children how to act in a group,'' Mr. Jiang said.

He readily conceded that officials were aware of the dangers of spoiling children and were working to offset them. One way of offsetting such a problem, apparently, is putting children in kindergarten at an early age.

``Parents would rather put their children, even their only children, into kindergartens than leave them in the care of grandmothers while they go to work,'' Jiang said.

Another family planning official, from Peking agreed. ``Yes,'' she said, ``Our tradition in China is to send children to kindergartens at about three years old. They find friends there which substitute for brothers and sisters.''

Officials cite studies done on the implications of one-child families. Reportedly the studies show that children without siblings display no adverse effects.

``Of course, parents have to be careful,'' the Peking official said. ``But China has no choice. We cannot sustain uncontrolled population growth. Our resources are limited.''

Everywhere we went we saw small children in the arms of elderly people, presumably grandparents. Before a child reaches kindergarten age, grandparents are widely used to care for them because both mothers and fathers work full time.

Although only 18 percent of China's couples are currently adhering to the one-child policy, Chinese officials say that the percentage will increase as the policy takes hold -- as it already appears to be doing in overcrowded urban areas.

Family-planning officials in Sichuan and other provinces intend to persuade mothers to forego families larger than a single child. If Sichuan, with its 100 million people, had been an independent country in 1984, it would have ranked as the seventh-largest in the world.

Eighty percent of Sichuan's people are rural -- in areas where new economic reforms are allowing farmers to earn more money than ever before and thus to be able to afford larger families.

The province's population is still growing at 3.7 percent annually, a rate equal to many countries in Africa. So officials deliver contraceptives free of charge to married couples.

One result of the new policy is an extraordinarily high rate of male sterilization in Sichuan -- 43.1 percent, unmatched anywhere else in the third world. Officials have no single explanation, other than ``education.''

Mr. Jiang wants to keep the province down to 120 million by the year 2000. This, he says, means an average family size, province-wide, of two children.

At the moment, family size is actually less -- 1.75 children -- but Sichuan, like China as a whole, faces the results of the baby boom during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when no guidelines were in place. Between now and 1998, 1.2 million young people will enter marriageable age each year.

Only 23.5 percent of Sichuan women have one child -- not enough for Jiang, but higher than the national average. But Jiang takes some encouragement from a recent survey showing that between 20 and 30 percent of people want one child.

He aims to increase this through ``education.'' Westerners in Peking however, are cautious. They say that Chinese questioned in surveys are tempted to say what they know officials want to hear rather than reveal their true feelings. Second of several reports from a recent eight-city tour of China.

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