Tipping the Scale: Gender Imbalance in China

By Chang, Mina | Harvard International Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Tipping the Scale: Gender Imbalance in China


Chang, Mina, Harvard International Review


Nearly 30 years after the implementation of China's one-child policy, the population of the world's largest nation weighs in at an estimated 1.3 billion people--300 million less than was projected in the 1970s. Government officials attribute this decrease to the success of the country's strict family planning policies, citing population control as a necessary precondition for economic growth. China's policies have pushed it to the forefront of international affairs and made it is one of the world's largest economies. But the one-child policy, initially meant to last a single generation, has also proved to have adverse effects on the gender balance of China today. Already the country's male-dominated birth rates, school classrooms, and matchmaking services darkly foreshadow a growing gender imbalance. Amidst calls for loosening or doing away with the country's control plans, the Minister of National Population and Family Planning Commission, Zhang Weiqing, declared China's intentions to "firmly keep on the road" while reforming its system. Both academics and older Chinese generations are voicing concerns for the future, wondering whether China's one-child policy reforms will help the nation take a leap forward in bridging the widening gender gap.

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping's initiative to check China's population growth became formalized under the one-child policy, generally limiting couples to one offspring. Though the government granted exceptions for cases such as handicapped firstborns, choosing to raise additional children came at the cost of heavy social fostering fees. Additionally, campaigns proclaiming "later, longer, fewer" encouraged delayed marriages, greater time between births, and smaller families. Today the fertility rate for the average Chinese female is 1.75 children, a significant drop from 5.2 in the early 1930s. The combination of a traditional preference for boys and easily accessible technology for sex-selective abortions has resulted in an average gender ratio of 118 males born to every 100 females, with some regions reaching 130 to 140 boys per 100 girls.

The significance of a male child extends beyond simple patriarchal dominance, since boys are seen as extra hands for labor or farm work. Even with China's growing prosperity, elderly parents still expect males to take care of them and to pass on the family name in the future. Moreover, economic reasons may explain the preference for boys, as traditional Chinese inheritance law dictates that sons inherit property.

There are many consequences of the gender gap. The lack of females provides an incentive to traffic girls for prostitution and forced marriages. …

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