On average, women around the world give birth to 106 baby boys for every 100 girls; more boys than girls are then lost in childhood. In China, the sex ratio for first births matches that average; but for every subsequent birth, the surplus of boys increases. This imbalance has been growing rapidly since 1979 when the one-child policy began. In 1982, there were 107 boys aged under five for every 100 girls; in 1990, 110; in 1995, 118.
China is by no means the only Asian country where the ratio of boy to girl babies is on the rise. The same is true in South Korea and Taiwan. The rise has gathered pace since the mid 1980s, roughly the point when new technologies — often amniocentesis in Korea and Taiwan, mainly ultrasound in China — capable of predicting the sex of a fetus with reasonable accuracy became available. But in China, the dearth of daughters is a particular problem; it will help to create the world’s biggest group of frustrated bachelors.
The long-term effect of this surplus of sons will be aggravated by a second factor: a dramatic fall in fertility to below replacement level. As a result, the number of people in each new generation of young Chinese will begin to decline. Because young men tend to pick younger women as brides, this will aggravate the shortage of girls1.
This calamity is the logical culmination of four millennia of Chinese preference for sons. Since Confucian times sons alone have been able to sacrifice to the family spirits, carry the family name and inherit the family estate. Daughters, who have traditionally left their family home at marriage and gone to live with their in-laws, have for centuries been an investment without a financial return.
Female infanticide clearly continues in China, even though it is illegal and condemned by the government. Modern technology now offers Chinese parents an alternative to adoption and infanticide as a way of dealing with unwanted girls: sex-selective abortion.
Allowing more than one child per married couple may reduce the growing sex imbalance, but only at the expense of population control. A tax-supported public pension system may more effectively reduce the preference for sons who have been the traditional source of old-age support. In Zhejiang, the first Chinese province to provide support for the rural elderly, the sex imbalance at birth has almost disappeared, according to Xie Zhenming, editor of China Population Today. It has gone, too, in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where a survey recently found that many people said they would prefer a daughter on the grounds that daughters were more likely to care for their aged parents than sons. In cities, daughters are much less likely to move in with parents-in-law than in the countryside.
- Shortage of girls in China has led to a thriving industry of bride-buying and cross-border kidnapping of girls in the rural areas (WSJ 8/3/1999).
- The Economist. 12/19/1998. "6.3 Brides for Seven Brothers."
- Wall Street Journal. 8/3/1999. "Vietnamese Women Are Kidnapped and Later Sold in China as Brides."