The “Missing Girls” From China: Reforms Are Too Little, Too Late

“Chinese Children” by Joan Vila. CC BY 2.0, accessed via flickr.com

China is currently “missing” more females than the size of Canada’s total population. In China, the decades-old one-child policy has created a substantial gender imbalance, with many more males than females. The sex ratio at birth (SRB) has risen over the past few decades from a natural 103 males for every 100 female infants to a peak of 121 boys per 100 girls in 2005 (recent numbers put the current ratio at 118 boys to 100 girls). Some estimates predict that there will be 55 million more males than females by 2020.

In the fall of 2013, the Chinese government announced its promise to reform its one-child policy as a way of partially rectifying the male-female gender gap. However, these policy changes to fix China’s gender gap are too little, too late. While reforms to the one-child policy are long overdue, the current reforms are not substantial enough to reverse China’s gender imbalance. The Chinese government says that the country currently has 40 million “extra” males. According to most predictions, this gap between the number of males and females will only increase. This growing disparity in population risks social and political upheaval that could negatively affect China and its neighbors. Bolder social and political changes, such as tougher legal restrictions on sex-selective neonatal practices and a broader education campaign, are required to resolve this demographic crisis.

The One-Child Policy, Then and Now

Instituted in 1979, the one-child policy—referred to as the “family planning policy” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—was designed to control China’s dramatic population growth. At the time, China was experiencing rapid population increases which threatened to disrupt the country’s social and economic stability. Chinese policymakers, inspired by Western environmentalist literature, decided to institute the policy. They paid heed to warnings from organizations, such as the Sierra Club, that advocated a population restructuring to resolve environmental issues. The goal was to decrease China’s population to 700 million individuals by 2080. There were some exceptions for rural inhabitants and China’s minority ethnic groups, in order to preserve rural populations and to maintain minority levels. However, the vast majority of Chinese couples—urban, majority-Han—were only afforded one child. While effective at slowing the pace of China’s population growth, the policy also skewed the gender ratio, creating unforeseen demographic impacts on Chinese society.

“…one out of every five young men will not be able to find a wife because of a lack of females”

Late in 2013, as part of a package of reforms, the Communist Party announced a revision of the one-child policy. The goal of the reforms, stated in the documents from the Third Plenum meeting of the Communist Party, is to “promote long-term balanced development of the population in China.” This change allowed couples to have a second child if one of the parents was a single child. This is a policy change that will likely have a substantial effect on the overall population level as the next generation reaches reproductive age.

Such population changes will be effective at addressing some of the CCP’s concerns about the low birthrate. For instance, an increase in births will provide a future respite from the problems of an increasingly aging population. Various economic studies have shown that the absence of a young working-age population would make it difficult to support the larger numbers of older retirees. Furthermore, this lack of young workers threatens China’s economic prospects by creating the possibility of a labor shortage and decreased productivity. These reforms certainly provide the stability that China needs to help its economy and political influence grow.

However, these changes are not sufficient enough to resolve the increasing risks from a growing gender gap. The reforms were made with no explicit consideration of the current disparities between the male and female populations. These policy changes fail to address the widespread preference for male children in China, which is caused by various economic and cultural factors. As a result, the reforms are too narrow and general in scope to effectively change the birth rates of either gender.

Economic and Cultural Factors of the Gender Gap

Cultural and economic hindrances are arguably the most important reasons why recent reforms are not going to fix the gender gap. Many families desire male children in order to ensure an extra source of income. In China, females are perceived as less valuable for labor and unable to provide sustenance. This is especially true in rural areas, where many families rely predominately on male labor to farm, harvest, and work the fields. Furthermore, male children are expected to grow up and support their parents as they age, while females are supposed to merely attend to their in-laws. The absence of a strong social safety net for young children and the elderly also creates incentives to have male children. Chinese parents have little assistance paying for childcare and other necessities; this makes it important for prospective parents to have children that will be able to work and contribute to household income. In addition, most parents will not have a reliable source of income after retirement, leaving them heavily dependent on their male children to provide economic security in their old age.

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Chinese girls are often viewed as less economically and culturally valuable as boys, especially in rural villages such as this one in Guangdong Province. “Village Children, Guangdong, China” Photo by James Jin, CC BY-SA 2.0, accessed via flickr.com

In addition to economic factors, there are cultural causes that underlie the gender disparity. There is a deep-rooted cultural tradition that encourages having male children. Many of these attitudes have existed in China for a long time, coming from traditional Confucian conceptions of the family. Because men pass down family names, society regards male children as vital to preserving ancestral traditions. In contrast, female children are “given away” to their husband’s family. Furthermore, male heirs are supposed to perform ancestral rituals, while females are often not permitted to. For example, Chinese tradition views men, who are heads of family, as necessary to pay respects to deceased family members. These differing cultural practices have certainly contributed to the overwhelming preference for male children.

As a result of these factors, many Chinese families are driven to obtain male children by any means necessary. They have been aided by several Beijing initiatives that have made it easier to have sex-selective births. The increasing supply of prenatal scanning equipment, combined with policies intended to make scans accessible to rural patients, has allowed parents to determine the sex of the child prior to birth. This has facilitated the increase in sex-selective abortions. While such practices are technically illegal under Chinese law, there are ambiguities surrounding what constitutes sex-selective abortion. Unscrupulous physicians may classify these abortions as medically necessary, thereby bypassing regulations. This has allowed parents to abort unwanted female children. Some parents resort to other unsavory methods; many female newborns are either abandoned or killed. Numerous reports of neglect and infanticide have been reported in China.

Dangers of the Gap

Beyond the significant harms of illegal unsafe abortions, neglect, and infanticide, the growing gender imbalance threatens the stability of China and its regional neighbors. There is danger of internal violence as a result of a male-dominated society. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one out of every five young men will not be able to find a wife because of a lack of females. A plethora of sociological evidence reveals that a high population of unmarried males can increase the incidence of crime. The lack of strong social ties created by marriage and familyhood can incentivize risky, immoderate behavior. The Institute for the Study of Labor found that a one percent increase in the male sex rate at birth corresponded with a five percent increase in the crime rate. In addition to basic crime, this demographic shift raises the risk of creating a substantial restless class of single men. Studies have shown that single men tend to be more dissatisfied with their social situations and exhibit aggressive behavior. The development of that faction, combined with an increasingly difficult economic outlook, raises the likelihood of broader social unrest directed against the government.

Even now, China’s gender gap has indirectly exacerbated transnational crime and contributed to regional instability. The lack of women has led some men to demand wives from other Asian countries. This demand for foreign females has given rise to one of the worst cases of human trafficking in the world. Criminal gangs from Southeast Asia traffic poor women into China to sell them into marriage. Many are duped or kidnapped from countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. This illicit arrangement raises the risks of physical and sexual exploitation. Furthermore this burgeoning human market funnels money to regional criminal organizations, strengthening their operations and promoting regional instability. The United Nations recognized the risks of strengthened criminal gangs, noting that successes with human trafficking embolden organizations to engage in higher-risk actions. Such smuggling also makes it hard to track the flow of individuals across borders while wasting crucial law enforcement resources.

“…The Chinese government says that the country currently has 40 million ‘extra’ males. According to most predictions, this gap between the number of males and females will only increase.”

The possibility of rising domestic instability raises its own risks. As explained in Bare Branches, a book by Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, a disproportionately large male population often drives states to implement aggressive, anti-democratic policies in an attempt to prevent unrest. It is conceivable that the CCP, wary of an increasingly restive male population, will crack down and further restrict personal liberties. This would be a major step backwards in China’s slow yet steady march towards liberalism, and would have significant impacts on regional and international democratic trends. Along similar lines, Hudson and den Boer argue that China may become militarized as a result of the gender gap. It is indeed possible that Chinese policymakers, in a desperate attempt to avoid protests of disgruntled men, will rely on intense nationalism to distract them. The government could also potentially resort to forced conscription and other mass-mobilization activities. These political consequences would likely contribute to the destabilization of an already precarious situation in East Asia.

Potential Solutions to China’s Demographic Woes

Based on current trends, it would be reasonable to conclude that China’s current approach to resolve the gender gap has failed to substantially improve the situation. Part of the problem stems from the narrow nature of the Party’s reforms. It is time for China to directly address the underlying roots of the gender problem, instead of relying upon tangential policies to treat the symptoms.

Under current Chinese law, sex-selective abortions and certain types of prenatal scanning are already banned. However, local doctors are often able to circumvent these restrictions by ordering these practices for illegitimate medical reasons. The Chinese government should aggressively pursue and prosecute physicians who engage in these unprofessional practices. Furthermore, the government should direct its National Health and Family Planning Commission, which is in charge of implementing the one-child policy, to more tightly regulate prenatal operations. This could be potentially done by having local child planning officials strictly evaluate proposed medical procedures. This would go a long way towards ensuring that parents do not have the means to selectively abort female children.

Village bulletins announce recent births and also serve as a reminder of the existence of the one-child policy. Further reforms to the law will have to be made in order to resolve the gender gap. Photo by David Cowhig, CC BY 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Furthermore, the Chinese government should consider further modifications to its one-child policy. A gradual expansion of eligibility for second children could be promising. The government can pledge to allow all parents the ability to have a second child, which would reduce the incentive to abandon female children, since parents would be able to try for a second baby. This policy would likely not have major deleterious effects on the population size; China has reached the point where a population increase might even be welcomed. However, parents who desire male children would be willing to raise a second child if it increased their chances to have male progeny. The recent nature of reforms, combined with slow and often uncooperative local bureaucracies, however, makes these changes unlikely.

Lastly and most importantly, the CCP must increase its efforts to shift social and cultural attitudes surrounding girls. While the government has some public campaigns that address the issue, relatively little attention is paid to them. The Chinese government needs to step up its educational campaign to inform parents about the value of having girls. This can also be done through the National Health and Family Planning Commission. The Chinese State Council needs to mandate that the organization invest in public messaging regarding birth practices. Expanding cultural messaging to persuade prospective parents to avoid female abandonment is also necessary. China’s persisting gender gap presents many challenges for the country and the world as a whole. Certainly, the increasing gender disparity threatens to destabilize China’s distinctly structured society, with social and political risks for the region at large. While China’s recent reforms to its one-child policy are a step in the right direction, it remains clear that more action is needed.

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Kevin Xie

Kevin Xie is one of the Editors-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review.

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