HOW to raise up a child in the way he (or she) should go? The old question has new urgency in China. With a national policy that generally permits only one child per family, Chinese society is entering unknown social terrain. Now 8 out of 10 first-graders are only-children. By the year 2000, most Chinese 20-year-olds will be from single-child families, writes Chinese Youth magazine.
``What will be the impact of these brotherless and sisterless people on China's development?'' the magazine asked in its June issue.
Will they be more secure, better educated, and more independent, as some people hope? Or will they be self-indulgent, egocentric, and overbearing, as others think?
The questions are troubling schoolteachers and state officials in a country where being alone is an anathema. But for parents who are intent on pampering their only child, it seems they are raising a generation of ``little emperors.''
Cartoons in the Chinese press often point to the 4-2-1 syndrome, or the problem of four grandparents and two parents indulging one child. Children tell their own stories.
``I ride on Daddy's shoulders and ask my parents to make a circle with their arms,'' a schoolchild told the China Youth News recently. ``Then I say, `You're the sky and I'm the little red sun!'''
The hopeful side of China's one-child policy, begun in 1979, is that it has sharply reduced the growth rate of the world's largest country, winning praise from many international organizations concerned with population problems.
During almost three decades of rule by Mao Tse-tung, China's population grew at an average annual rate of 21 per 1,000 population. In the past 10 years, that has been reduced to an average rate of 12 per 1,000 population, though last year it slipped back up to 14 per 1,000.
China's birth-control policy has been controversial from the start. Officials are confronted with the problem of trying to enforce in a humane way a national policy that denies Chinese the traditional pleasure and security of large families.
In the early 1980s, there were widespread reports of forced abortions and even female infanticide in rural areas. Now such reports are seldom heard and, presumably, many of the worst abuses have been curbed.
However, there has been a reversal of China's downward trend in birthrates as more and more women from the baby boom of the 1960s are marrying. Enforcement of the policy has also slackened, and more exceptions are made. Practices are especially loose in the rural areas.
``Normally, couples can have two children,'' said the woman responsible for family planning in a village of Guangdong Province. ``Here in the rural areas the policy has always been this way. But if they have two daughters and they still want to have a son, then they can have another try. We have no way to control them.''
Fines of 300 to 400 yuan ($81-$108) are sometimes levied in this village, a light penalty that can be reduced, say residents, if the couple is sufficiently ``regretful.''
In China's most populous province of Sichuan, stricter rules have been newly adopted. According to the People's Daily, couples in Sichuan having two or more children can be fined as much as 50 percent of their salary until the child is an adult.
Positive incentives for couples who sign a certificate pledging compliance with the one-child policy include preferential employment and access to new housing.
Family-planning officials are concerned with the recent trends, and some say that the national target of 1.2 billion people by the year 2000 will be exceeded. Although their approaches have become more sophisticated, with a strong emphasis on education and social pressure on young couples, humane enforcement is not easy.
One senior official commented bluntly that particularly in rural areas, the ``measures adopted are not effective.'' In a candid comment last year, a senior family-planning official said: ``The one-child-per-family rule is not a good policy, but we have no choice.''