The Lost Girls

China may come to regret its preference for boys

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Since 1979, the Chinese government has been insisting that families have only one child. Grudgingly accepted by most Chinese people as a necessary response to the threat of overpopulation, the one-child policy has had some impact upon the population spiral. Yet there is a deadly cultural and biological corollary: If a Chinese family is going to have only one child, it’s “better” if it’s a boy. Female infanticide, death by neglect in orphanages, and selective abortion following gender determination by ultrasound have become widespread. A gender gap that threatens to destabilize China has resulted.

While the worldwide human birthrate is 106 boys to 100 girls, the birthrate in China was 117 to 100 in 1994. As Lucinda Richards, writing in the British literary-political journal Contemporary Review (Jan. 1996), reports, the Chinese gender gap represents 1.7 million fewer female babies appearing on Chinese birth records every year than worldwide rates would lead us to expect. There are now 36 million more males than females in China. A surplus of 70 million single men by the end of this century is predicted.

Given Chinese cultural norms, the betrayal of Chinese girls was inevitable once the one-child policy was adopted. Boys are a good investment in the future. Men support the family and bring it prestige. They ensure that the family line will continue, and they are their aging parents’ social security. Girls, on the other hand, offer no such advantages. Women join other families when they marry, and they are seen as offering no payback for the trouble and expense of raising them. As the number of missing girls increases, though, so do concerns about the social, economic, and biological impact of their absence. Chinese families that produce a son at all costs may discover that the son cannot fulfill critical family obligations because the woman he needs to help him do so is missing.

(In 1991, an alarmed Chinese government, fearing long-term social disruption as a result of the gender gap, forbade doctors from revealing to parents the sex of their unborn children as determined by ultrasound. But parents with the wherewithal to bribe the underpaid doctors have been able to circumvent the law.)

Free-market theory suggests that a shortage of women should increase their value; it has, but only as, literally, a commodity. For some time, experts have been predicting kidnapping of women for personal use and for marriage, slave, and prostitution markets. Richards reports that the abduction and trading of women actually is widespread, especially in rural areas. “The trade is worth over 700 million a year,” she says, “and the problem is likely to escalate as men find it increasingly hard to find a wife.” A report in Asiaweek (March 3, 1995) also notes that “in one region police captured more than 1,000 such traders and rescued 5,000 women in the last decade.” Some foresee marauding bands of men traveling the countryside searching for and abducting women.

Kidnapping may meet the needs of some men, but without enough women there will be many who cannot obtain a wife. There is no national social security system in China, and the eldest (now only) son and his wife are fully responsible for caring for his elderly parents. Asiaweek describes the nervousness of government officials “who contemplate the consequences of 10 percent of Chinese homes in crisis because their sons cannot marry.”

“Little emperors” (the name given to the spoiled male children being produced by the one-child policy) may grow into selfish, egotistical men who aren’t interested in self-discipline or fulfilling the obligations of citizenship. The possibility that an entire generation will be unwilling and unable to conform to traditional values and a communist system is now a serious concern in China.

Biologists, too, wonder about the long-term evolutionary effects of gender imbalance. Writing in the American Institute of Biological Sciences journal BioScience (June 1995), Anna Maria Gillis reports on a controversial hypothesis in evolutionary biology: favoring boys and curtailing fertility may, ironically, end up favoring girls. Biologists believe boys outnumber girls at birth because the species accounts for the fact that more boys die before reaching reproductive age. If more and more girls in China fail to reach puberty, will the gender ratio at birth reverse itself there?

Ultimately, China’s emergence in the global economy may hold the best hope for girls and women. Chinese women who establish independent economic identities by taking part in China’s industrial boom may be those most able to redefine their own value and the value of their daughters. Unless respect for women increases, China’s social stability is likely to continue to decrease, with unknown and potentially disturbing consequences.