In September 1980, the Chinese government introduced the controversial one-child policy. The children of the first generation are now in their mid-20s and they are not all convinced by the policy.
Officials justify the one-child policy saying China cannot educate more children
"Xiao Huangdi" or little emperors is what the only children of China’s one-child policy generation are called. Their parents work hard to provide them with the best they can afford: food, clothes and education. He Jia is a “little empress” but says that being an only child is not always pleasant.
"When I was little I thought that being an only child was a great thing," she recalls. "The toys were all mine and my parents loved only me. But when I was a teenager I wanted to have another sibling because I felt kind of lonely."
Loneliness is only one of the side effects of the controversial policy. In another family, He Jia might not even have been born - because many families prefer to have male offspring, the policy has led to selective abortion being a very common practice. When girls are born, they are seen to be second-best, says Liu Zheng, another "little empress" who lives in Shanghai.
"I know that my mother likes boys more and that she wanted to have a baby boy," she says. "But she got me - a girl. And she had to accept it because of the one-child-policy. As a child I was dressed up like a boy, when I went to school she wanted me to study science and engineering. She raised me like a boy."
Many families are disappointed when their one child is a girl - selective abortion is not uncommon
On top of gender disparity, the Chinese population is aging. The average age is now 35 but the UN predicts that it will have reach 43 over the next 40 years. By 2050, it is estimated that about a third of Chinese will be at least 60 years old.
At the moment, China has no state pension scheme, which means that retired people rely heavily on their children. This makes life more difficult for the little emperors.
"I feel more pressure because I am an only child," says he Jia. "I am studying in a foreign country, my parents are in China and they are not getting younger. If I had siblings and they were in China, we would be able to take care of our parents in turn and I wouldn’t be so worried."
Aware of the negative implications of the one-child policy, the Chinese authorities have introduced certain exceptions to slow down the aging of the population. People living in rural areas can have a second child if the first was a girl. Two only children who form a couple are allowed to have two children.
According to official statistics, the one-child policy has prevented 400 million births
Liu Zheng says that she does not want her children to be lonely: "When I become a mother I don’t want my child to be an only child. I want to have two or three children. When the next generation of children is born they will be even lonelier. Our generation still has cousins at least. But they will have even fewer relatives."
Despite the side effects, China continues to defend its one-child policy, which the state media recently reported the authorities want to go on implementing.
The National Population and Family Planning Administration credits the policy with having prevented 400 million births, sparing China from the pressures posed by scarce water and food resources. It also says China would not have had the capacities to educate and employ 400 million additional people.
So more little emperors will be born and their status will not prevent them from being lonely.
Author: Chi Viet Giang
Editor: Anne Thomas