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By Michael Henze (NHS ’15)
According to the Population Reference Bureau, China’s population has climbed to a staggering 1,350,37800 people, just shy of 20% of the total human population on Earth. China had a long history of massive population growth until the 1970’s, when the communist regime launched the group of family planning policies designed to limit family size that is commonly referred to as the “One Child Policy” (OCP). Through examining certain demographic indicators, this article will examine the socio-political causes and effects of a skewed sex ratio. Ultimately, China has displayed sufficient progress that suggests the total fertility rate (TFR) could remain below the replacement level of 2.1 without strict government regulation. Therefore, the government should abolish the OCP to alleviate the population pressures caused by an imbalanced sex ratio.
Understanding the “Son Preference”
Historically, China has always been a male dominated society. The “son preference” is a result of spiritual and secular customs in China. Confucian tradition states that the birth of a male child is a sign of good fortune. Male children are favored as they carry on the family name, and the firstborn son inherits their family’s fortune. The son preference has been strengthened with the introduction of the market economy in China, as boys are believed to be better, stronger workers that will ensure their family’s economic prosperity in the future. [i] Chinese customs contribute to the portrayal of female children as a burden. The old proverb saying, “raising a girl is like watering your neighbors’ garden” remains a common belief among Chinese parents. After massive investments of time and money it is customary in Chinese culture for a woman to join her husband’s family after marriage, while men stay with their biological families to take care of their aging parents. Today, China faces a large increase of dependant elderly people. According to the World Bank, the population over 65 years of age has increased from 4 to 8.4 since 1960 and that value will rise as China continues to develop. This means that pensions will be in danger in the future, as an increasing elderly population will depend on a dwindling labor force for income. The aging population further advances the son preference as parents equate male children with future financial security, since male children will ideally grow up and support them.
The Son Preference in the Context of the OCP
The blending of patriarchal tradition with modern family planning policy formed a volatile mix that exacerbated the son preference to extreme measures. Because Chinese parents are restricted to one offspring, many are willing to take drastic measures to ensure that child is male. In a survey, two-thirds of rural respondents said they would prefer a boy if limited to one child. Error! Bookmark not defined. Trends of sex-selective abortions, infanticide and neglect have contributed to the widespread gendercide against female infants and children.
The skewed sex ratio in China serves as demographic evidence of female gendercide as a result of family planning laws from 1979-present. The natural sex ratio of male to female births is 105:100. The sex ratio at birth before the OCP took effect (1978) was 15.9, just slightly higher than the natural ratio. The current day sex ratio is a highly debated number. It varies greatly by province and is difficult to estimate due to faulty or insufficient birth registrations. In his recent work, John May estimates the average ratio to be 1.24 boys per girl spiking to 1.30 in some regions. [ii] A total of six provinces displayed SRB of 1.30 or higher. The surplus of 19 boys per hundred translates to massive numbers due to the massive scale of the Chinese population. In 2005 an excess of 1.1 million boys were born. Now there are 32 million more males under the age of 20 than their female counterparts.[iii] The deficits of female children in the sex ratio are called “missing girls” and they are the victims of gendercide.
Illegal Practices Contributing to Missing Girls
Chinese parents often resort to illegal measures in pursuit of a male child. Unregistered female births are a common way to evade birth restrictions. Chinese women hide their pregnancies and give birth alone or with the help of an illegal midwife. Because there is not record of bearing a child, the women are free to conceive again. These unregistered births dramatically raise the value of the sex ratio as there is an under recording of female births.
Abandonment is another common illegal practice that impacts female children. Unwanted infants (98% of which are female) are left along in train stations, sidewalks and marketplaces. Roughly 140,000 abandoned infants are admitted to state run orphanages annually. The number of abandoned children is likely double that, as about 50% die before they are found. [iv]The conditions within the orphanages are atrocious and 40-90% of children die before adoption. iv
As a result of this desperate need for a son, a black market for trafficking unwanted infants has exploded. Girls born into poor families are most commonly victims of trafficking. Girls sell for about 90 US$ while a boy can cost thousands. iv Oftentimes poor babies are sold to wealthier families who can afford more children. Offenders of infant trafficking are subject to sanctions, however as observed with other policies, it is poorly enforced.
Sex-selective abortion (SSA) occurs when a physician or ultrasound technician identifies the sex of the baby, and in the case of China, the mother chooses to abort the female fetus so she may be cleared for a second pregnancy in the hopes of conceiving male child. From 1985-89 China imported a high volume of ultrasound imaging machines resulting in a spike in sex selective abortions from 1990-95. This is probably due in part to the increased access to ultrasound technologies causing an increased incidence of sex selective abortions. The exact value of SSA is nearly impossible to determine due to its taboo nature but a 1990 survey estimated that 1/3 of abortions in China were sex specific. Additionally, illegal operations charge couples a sum to conduct an ultrasound screen and/or SSA outside of health establishments. [v] Many of these illegal abortions are self induced or late term, both of which profoundly threaten maternal health. Due to lack of enforcement and corruption in the healthcare system, illegal abortions continue to contribute to the number of missing girls.
Infanticide is the most extreme example of the devaluation of female children. Very poor people may not have access to ultrasound sex screening and if desperate for a male child will kill their daughters. Wealthier parents may commit infanticide so they can purchase a trafficked baby boy. In some cases parents bribe their doctors to purposefully kill their female infants. Because the parents do not press charges, the doctor gets away without malpractice charges. In addition, law enforcement will often turn a blind eye to infanticide to ensure adherence to birth quotas in their region. v Ultimately these practices attack female populations and the missing girls skew the sex ratio of the Chinese population.
Implications of Skewed Sex Ratio
The shortage of women has caused negative effects on the male population. In Chinese culture marriage is universal, unmarried men are called “bare branches” and are scorned to the lowest levels of the social hierarchy. Most assume bare branches are infertile, homosexual or unfit partners. 20% of the male population will be unable to find a bride by 2020. ii A direct relationship exists between education and marriage in men. 27% of men comprising the lowest education level are unmarried while only 1% of college-educated men are without spouse. [vi]
The shame of bachelorhood causes emotional trauma to unmarried men, which has been shown to increase violent crimes as well as increased activity of the sec industry. Increased prostitution will increase the incidence of HIV infections in single men as the two are positively related. There is also now a market for bride trafficking. Peasant women from Mongolia, Cambodia, North Korea and Malaysia are often promised job opportunities and fooled into trafficking. Others are kidnapped and sold to single men
 Scharping, T. Birth Control in China 1949-200. 1st ed. New York, NY. RoutledgeCurzon; 2003
 May JF. World population policies their origin, evolution, and impact. Dordrecht; New York: Springer; 2012. p. 261-263.
 Hesketh T, Lu L, Xing ZW. The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal 2011;183(12):1374.
 Greenhalgh S, Winckler EA. Governing China’s Population. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2005.
 Tiefenbrun, S, Edwards, CJ. Gendercide and the cultural context of sex trafﬁcking in china. Fordham International Law Journal.2008;32(3):731-777
 Feng W, Can China afford to continue its one-child policy? Asia Pacific Issues 2005; (77):1-11.
Implications of Skewed Sex Ratio
The shortage of women has also negatively affected the male population. In Chinese culture, unmarried men, sometimes called “bare branches,” are scorned as the lowest level of the social hierarchy. Most assume bare branches are infertile, homosexual or unfit partners. Because of the shortage of women, 20% of the male population will be unable to find a bride by 2020. ii A direct relationship exists between education and marriage; 27% of uneducated men are unmarried, compared to only 1% of college-educated men. [vii]
The shame of bachelorhood causes emotional trauma to unmarried men, and has been shown to increase violent crimes and increased traffic in the sex industry. Increased prostitution increase the incidence of HIV infections in single men. There is also now a market for bride trafficking. Peasant women from Mongolia, Cambodia, North Korea and Malaysia are often promised job opportunities and tricked into the country. Others are kidnapped and sold to single men.
Government Attempts to Normalize the Sex Ratio
China must crack down on the criminal actions that skew the SRB in order to alleviate pressure on men and reduce gendercide. The Ministry of Health formally banned SSA in 1995. Now, healthcare professionals face financial penalties or revocation of licenses should they be convicted. Women are also forcibly sterilized for aborting a fetus because of gender. Despite these mandates, the gender gap still widened. The Ministry of Health attempted in 2001 with the Law on Population and Birth Planning, explicitly outlawing healthcare professionals to reveal the sex of the baby to the couple with ultrasound imaging. However as hospitals faced state cutbacks, doctors became increasingly susceptible to accepting bribes and violating the law. i The government must reduce unlawful acts of healthcare professionals and monitor the use of ultrasound devices, and invest more to shut down trafficking operations. There are roughly 15,000 internal trafficking victims as well as thousands more victims from abroad. Unfortunately, due to poor funding of government initiatives like the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking, only about 14,000 victims of trafficking are saved each year. v
Policymakers must focus on increasing the value of females in Chinese culture in order to naturalize the SRB, which it has begun to do. In 2003 the National Population and Family Planning Committee launched the “Care for Girls Campaign,” which aimed to promote the value of female children and lessen the shame in bachelorhood. By 2007 Chinese women considered the campaign to have improved the perception of women. iii The Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women equalizes the political, occupational, educational, nuptial and property rights for women to alleviate the SRB socially. The government could also provide financial incentives and subsidies for couples who adopt girls, and additional bonuses could be provided to women who sign a “one child agreement” after bearing only female(s).
The family planning committees have also made alterations to the OCP that more easily grant second children to urban couples. In some regions, parents can have a second child if one parent was an only child as opposed to the previous requirement of both parents to come from single child families. More leniencies should be applied to the OCP (although discard the policy altogether would be ideal). The TFR is already 1.6, well below the replacement of 2.1. Should the TFR shrink much more, China will face the tremendous burdens of an aging population.
The OCP was an unnecessary policy that should be discontinued. Prior to the OCP, the TFR had already fallen to 2.7. Though the laws seemed like they should have produced dramatic results, they failed to do so. After 33 years the TFR has only fallen by 1.2, which can be attributed to socioeconomic limiting factors. The “population bomb” perceived by laypeople and policy makers in the late 20thcentury was most likely due to population momentum. Demographic indicators show that China’s fertility would not change dramatically (if at all) as a result of abolishing the OCP. The PRB data shows current RNI in China is .5, the same as the US. Many other fertility-limiting factors are already in place. The market economy puts increased investment in children’s education as well as economic advancement over the desire for a large family, which is traditional in agrarian societies. These values have popularized the preference for small families. The mean preference for all women in the study was below replacement level of 2.1.
[i] Scharping, T. Birth Control in China 1949-200. 1st ed. New York, NY. RoutledgeCurzon; 2003
[ii] May JF. World population policies their origin, evolution, and impact. Dordrecht; New York: Springer; 2012. p. 261-263.
[iii] Hesketh T, Lu L, Xing ZW. The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal 2011;183(12):1374.
[iv] Greenhalgh S, Winckler EA. Governing China’s Population. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2005.
[v] Tiefenbrun, S, Edwards, CJ. Gendercide and the cultural context of sex trafﬁcking in china. Fordham International Law Journal.2008;32(3):731-777
[vi] Feng W, Can China afford to continue its one-child policy? Asia Pacific Issues 2005; (77):1-11.