Breaking up not hard to do for China's "me" generation

BEIJING (Reuters) - Ten months after they tied the knot, Li Lei and Wang Yang, both 20-something Chinese professionals, decided it was time to break up so they could spend more time with their lovers.

A newly-married couple poses for a photo in front of a church in Beijing Nov. 13, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Lee

They signed on the dotted line on their divorce paper less than 20 minutes after answering “no” to a few key questions -- “Do you have kids?” and “Any disputes on property?”

China’s phenomenal economic growth has created a generation of “emperors” and “empresses”, the now-adult children of China’s one-child policy, who often put their needs before anything and anyone else.

Experts say many of this generation are unable to sustain relationships, a result of being spoilt only children, doted on by parents and grandparents who catered to their every whim.

“They are weak in horizontal bonding, communicating with the same generation,” said Professor Fucius Yunlan, a U.S.-trained psychiatrist who runs counselling sessions in Beijing.

“They tend to apply a vertical approach to horizontal relationships.”

With an enlarged sense of entitlement, some of these couples tend to part quickly. Counsellors say some marriages fall apart after a week or a few months.

China launched the controversial one-child policy in the early 1980s to curb its population, now over 1.3 billion.

The restrictions, which vary from city to countryside, caused a variety of social problems such as a fast-ageing society and a breakdown of family values which used to be based on the traditional Confucian ideal of a large and close family.


The problem of grown only children having difficulties sustaining relationships is particularly pronounced among the affluent middle-and upper-classes who have accumulated enormous wealth from China’s economic success.

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Divorce figures in some cities show about one-third of all divorce cases involve children of the affluent “me” generation.

Brought up in China’s economic and social turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, many parents buried themselves in work to build a better life as the country underwent dizzying economic growth over the past two decades just as their kids reached their teens.

“They ignored the emotional education of their children,” explained Prof. Fucius.

But in many cases, these parents showered their children with everything that money could buy as well as the emotional weight of high expectations for their only children.

Lu Qingyi, an economist and a day trader at the booming Chinese stock market, has set money aside to finance a car and a business for his 21-year-old son who is now thinking of aborting a finance degree in London to open a coffee shop in Beijing.

“Actually I’ve prepared a contingent fund for him in case he fails in the first business,” Lu added. “But of course I keep it hush-hush”.


Marriages among China’s elite often seem to be more about amassing wealth than nurturing relationships, observers suggest. When a partner with better prospects comes along, some couples such as Li Lei and Wang Yang think nothing of breaking up.

It’s a lifestyle that contrasts sharply to that of their parents who viewed marriage as a duty and divorce a shame.

“You will never ever find any trace in this generation of how we felt in the old days, guys didn’t even dare touch a girl’s fingers before marriage,” said Gary Xu, 55, a Red Guard in Mao Zedong’s chaotic Cultural Revolution who spent his teen years herding buffalo in the remote southwest.

In Xu’s time, when youths studied Marxism and dreamed of becoming model workers, pre-marital sex could cost one a treasured job at a state-run factory or expulsion from a prestigious university.

Marriage was about a couple working together to earn a television set, a bicycle, or a fridge.

“Kids today start their relationship right from the bed,” said Xu. “It’s a completely new generation.”

These days, cohabitation is commonplace and extra-marital sex is gaining acceptance. A new car, preferably a foreign brand, and a two-bedroom apartment, or at least a down payment on an apartment, is essential in a new marriage among the well-to-do.

Parents also feed the idea of marrying into “the right family” with a sound financial and political standing.

“If you marry into a rich and powerful family, you don’t need to plan anything as everything will be set for you smoothly and perfectly,” said a secretary, who asked not to be named.

“It will be a comfortable life. Why should we endure a hard life?”

The tens of millions of poor people in China’s impoverished rural areas are too preoccupied with trying to eke out a living on incomes as low as $80 per year to mimic the mores of the affluent.

But in the big cities, experts are seeing a sharp shift in social values among 20-somethings from the wealthy elite and fast-expanding middle class.

“This generation faces a completely different set of reality versus their parents,” explained Professor Fucius. “They are very much self-oriented, not others-oriented or social-oriented.”

“Their parents listen to what the superiors, tradition and other people have to say. They listen to themselves.”

Editing by Nick Macfie and Megan Goldin