In China, which had a strict one-child policy for decades, news stories involving children can garner a huge amount of interest. On 28 April, a CCTV camera in a bus in the town of Suining, Sichuan province, captured images of a man hitting a little boy after the child pestered him. The video went viral, triggering a large response on social media and even becoming front-page news in Chinese media. In China, the phenomenon of ‘little brats’ has sparked debate.

On 27 April, the 7-year-old boy was traveling alone on the bus, according to Chinese media. He pretended to kick a male passenger several times and then went up to him and touched his hands. The man’s reaction was brutal. He lifted up the boy by his arm and threw him on the ground. The child lost consciousness, before waking up for a few seconds and trying to get up; then he fainted again. Luckily, according to Chinese media reports, the boy was not injured, apart from a few bruises on his face. The man has been sentenced to two weeks in prison.

Screengrab from the video.
 

On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, some users criticised the man’s behaviour, but lots of people were quick to focus on the behaviour of the little boy, who was swiftly given the nickname ‘the little brat’.

"Well done" – a screen capture of one of the comments which received the most likes.  
 

Some of the comments spoke about the way the child was brought up – triggering huge debates.

"If you don’t bring your child up well, society will do it for you," said one Weibo user.
 

Exasperated adults

A week earlier, a video of a pregnant woman deliberately tripping up a child behaving badly in a restaurant also started a furore. Some comments criticised the child’s parents, who didn’t apologise after he tore through the door, carelessly knocking aside the transparent plastic windblocker hanging in the doorway, which hit the pregnant woman in the face and made her spill food down herself. Other comments focused on the woman’s aggressive reaction, and even questioned whether she was capable of raising a child herself.

Similar stories have been in the headlines in the past, like a video of a child urinating in a lift and causing it to break down; photos of a ‘little brat’ destroying a Lego sculpture in an exhibition in Beijing; or even a police statement from a town in northeastern China, which revealed that a forest fire had been caused by a ‘little brat’ playing with fire.

The term ‘little brat’ has been taken up as a hashtag on Weibo. Since the end of April, Weibo-users have created a flurry of activity around the phrase "熊孩子", which can be translated literally as ‘bear children’. These videos feed into an ongoing debate around how to raise children in China, at a time when people’s economic situations and social mores have changed drastically, as our Observers explain.

"The father decided that it wasn’t very serious"

Sam, an Observer in Beijing, has been directly affected by kids’ bratty behaviour:

Recently, a kid decided to have fun by keying my car – several times. When I managed to find the father of the child who did it, he decided that it wasn’t very serious and reminded me that the kid was very young, by way of excuse. A month later, the same thing happened to one of my neighbours. We called the police, who then also decided that it wasn’t a big problem. The truth is that there’s no strict law that can impose some kind of discipline on these sorts of children.

Two generations of only children

If ‘little brats’ aren’t unique to China, the extent of it can perhaps be linked to cultural changes in the country in recent generations. Between 1979 and 2015, the government imposed a one-child policy, a radical measure that meant that couples living in urban areas were only allowed one child, and couples in rural areas were limited to two – but only if the first child was a girl. The objective of the policy was to try to slow down a rapidly growing population. Nowadays, in lots of families, the parents (who are themselves only children) devote all of their attention to their only child. This may have created what has been dubbed the ‘Little Emperor Effect’ – where only children grow up spoilt and overprotected, according to an Australian study.

"The one child policy isn’t the sole cause of the problem"

Yu, who comes from Sichuan, has lived in France for almost two years. She’s continued to follow this problem of bratty children in her home country through Chinese social media.

There is very clearly a link between these spoilt, rude children and the one-child policy. When parents don’t have any other choice but to have an only child, they tend to heap all of their attention and hopes on their one child.

However, the one-child policy can’t be seen as the sole cause of the problem. Most children in China are only children and they’re not all rude, egocentric brats. It all depends on the parents and how they raise the child. In the last 40 years, Chinese society and the economy have changed a lot. There are many parents who had a difficult childhood themselves and who hope that their children will have a happier childhood. But lots of them equate this to having more material possessions. Confucian values, which prioritise respecting one’s elders, aren’t as important as they were before.

I think the phenomenon isn’t necessarily worse than before. Videos on the internet have helped to make the problem more visible, which is a good thing. In China, we have an old expression which says that by watching how a three-year-old child behaves, we can already know what kind of adult they’re going to become.