Chinese children spend very little time outside playing with their friends. It is a widespread perception, stemming from daily reports and certified by specific research. The most recent, by US company Gymboree, has revealed that Chinese children spend less than one hour per week outdoors, just one-quarter the amount of time spent by children the same age in other countries.
This reverse-superiority is reinforced by China’s third-to-last position on the list of how many hours children spent sleeping. The habit of keeping children under control, leaving them with their grandparents, and confining their playtime within the walls of the home or a shopping mall prevails in China, according to a practice so widespread that it spawned the expression “retail-tainment.” The phenomenon is not new, but it took on much larger proportions when economic development demanded a much higher collective commitment
Traditionally, China has not been known for its outdoor activities, sports, or encouragement of creativity. The predominant cultural models are based on determination, discipline, respect, and control over one’s emotions. The ideals that have inspired education are literary, more inclined towards reflection than experimentation. Creativity has been penalized, as if it were a deviation from the norm, from the path of a predicted performance. The results are evident, both in sports and across the entire fabric of society. China has never been successful in soccer, the world’s most popular sport, where the combination of individual and team is essential. Its practice routines hinge on the strict application of a certain method, when instead creativity and the unpredictable should be the basis of success. Similarly, the industries in which China has asserted itself are based on repetitive duties, a selection of labor-intensive sectors that have brought success but do not guarantee continued growth at the same pace.
The family structure has been hit by economic necessities. Now both parents are working outside the home, and they are forced to engage their children in supervised activities. At the same time China has seen degradation in environmental quality, the environment being sacrificed as well in the name of accelerated industrialization and a foolish use of natural resources. The consequences have been negative for Chinese children, forced to stay inside both by choice and by necessity.
It was likely a reaction to these limitations that set off an increasing number of alarms, the most recent occurring in big cities like Xiamen, Dalian, and Ningbo. The protests were all aimed at the polluting industries that are replacing parks and fields with factories. The citizens in numerous villages also demonstrated against the forced requisitions and the use of their land for the service center. Hundreds of videos of the clashes can be found online. The diffusion of the phenomenon and the social conscience that cause it are what’s different about the protests. The development model is being contested at its most basic level, because it has demanded too much commitment and too many sacrifices. It is too soon to determine if the protests are a form of social egoism – defined by the acronym NIMBY – or by a new social conscience.
The task of intervention lies with the new leadership. Any delay in dealing with the unrest – which is being reflected on the future of the children – might accelerate the movement and lead to social instability, a scenario that a still-unconfirmed leadership cannot afford.