The sky falls in on China?
January 8, 2010 / Mmegi Online
True to communist doctrine, Maoist China adopted an egalitarian policy that emphasised equality of the sexes. "Women hold up half the sky" Mao is purported to have maintained.
This mantra for equality was actualised by way of legislation and emphasis on the social advancement of women. Post Mao China however is experiencing a reversal of this policy position.
China under reform has witnessed spectacular economic progress resulting in the overall socio-economic lifting of the Chinese population. Amidst this splendour however, lurks a disturbing phenomena - that of overall negative population growth of women. Current estimations indicate that China has 40- 50 million "missing girls". Missing girls essentially refers to girl children who were projected to be born but never were, and/or died in infancy.
This article briefly explores the causes and consequences of this phenomena.
The bedrock of China's current rapid economic development is the various macro economic and social policies implemented by reformists in the late seventies and early eighties. One of the most important of these is the country's One Child Policy. China's fertility rate has declined in the past several decades as a result of its successful implementation. However, declining birth rates appear to be occurring concomitant with dramatic widening in the Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) and an Excessive Female Child Mortality rate (EFCM).
The primary factors attributable to these changes are cultural. According to Shuzou Li (2007) Chinese culture is generally characterised by intensive son preference and discrimination against girls.
Traditional Chinese culture is patriarchal and rooted in a strong Confucian value system that generally honors males over females. Traditionally, important religious and ancestral rituals were reserved for males. It was believed, and still is today, that family lineage can only be continued through sons. This attitude is especially strong in the southeastern parts of the Chinese mainland (Poston et al. 2000; Yang and Chen 2003).
Added to this, social expectation dictates that it is the responsibility of sons to provide for their parents in old age, whereas daughters are 'married away' and become responsible for the welfare of in-laws. A deficient social welfare system and declining birth rates have thus catalyzed the preference for sons. The latter is tampering with the structure of the Chinese family. Many today face what is popularly known as the "4-2-1 phenomena". That is, four grandparents and two parents, both from single-child-families, who must be supported by a single child.
The present limit placed on the number of children couples may have, has thus raised the significance of each birth. In the want for sons, families directly influence birth outcomes resulting in SRB in favour of boys. EFCM is attributed to family perceptions that place low value on the female child. In other words, discrimination against girls occurs in both pre-natal and post-natal periods since sex-selective abortions of female fetuses leads to the abnormally high SRB while the neglect of girls results in EFCM. The combination of these two factors is the prime suspect behind China's "missing girls" phenomena.
Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB)
Since 1982 SRB of children 0-4 years old has been widening. This corresponds with the early stages of the vigorous implementation of the One Child Policy. SRB of this age group continues to be higher than that of older age groups. 1982 - 2005 also indicates a general rise in SRB beyond the normal value of 106 boys to 100 girls. (Li, 2007). For instance, China's gender ratio for newborn babies in 2005 was 118 boys for every 100 girls, compared with 110:100 in 2000. In some southern regions like Guangdong and Hainan, the figure has reached 130 boys for every 100 girls. (China Daily 2007/01/23)
The primary cause of widening SRB as indicated, has often been cited as sex selective abortions. These were made possible as a result of the spread of cheap and portable ultra-sound scanners in the 1980's.Widening SRB therefore takes place as a result of cultural conditions that favour sons over daughters, it is facilitated by the availability of cheap technology, and is exacerbated by limitations placed on the number of children couples are allowed to have.
Excessive Female Child Mortality
Causes of EFCM are also driven by discrimination against girls.
From 1953 until the late 1970's, China followed a general global trend of showing a higher male infant mortality rate. However, after 1980 female infant mortality has been higher. This phenomenon, like widening SRB also coincides with the onset of the implementation of the One Child Policy.
Because of the low value placed on girls by some parents these children end up dead as a consequence of neglect. Parental neglect may take various forms such as under feeding the child, not attending to the child's health needs and other forms.
Sex discrimination is also behind why girls are over represented amongst abandoned children in China. Whereas poverty is the primary motivation for child abandonment in many countries, in the case of China however culture supersedes poverty. To demonstrate this argument, Johnson Kay (2002), turns to Korea, a country also rooted in a Confucian culture very similar to China. Although annual numbers of children adopted from Korea declined in the 1980s and 1990s, over the past 50 years South Korea has been the largest single supplier of children to adoptive parents abroad. These children are, and were overwhelmingly girls. This trend persisted even during South Korea's massive economic growth and development. Since 1994 China has surpassed South Korea as a supplier of adopted children abroad. Like South Korea, China has had to turn to international adoption as an alternative placement area for her ever increasing numbers of girl children in orphanages. Unfortunately, these children face difficulty in domestic placement for the same reasons that they were abandoned. China's One Child Policy only multiplies these concerns.
According to Shuzou Li (2007), this "missing girls" phenomena is leading to an imbalanced sex structure within China's population and exerts indirect effect on demographic issues such as population size, aging, working- age population, and marriage. Although it may exert no significant effect on the current population size, the same cannot be said for future population projections.
"Since these missing girls are never born, their opportunity to give birth to their female offspring likewise disappears, thereby inducing a decreasing ability for society's population growth" (Kay, 2002)
This has the potential to accelerate China's aging process, which will inevitably have a negative effect on economic growth as the total number of working age individuals will be reduced. In addition the country will 'gray' before it is wealthy which will be a heavy burden on its social welfare system.
Amongst a series of concerns, about China's gender imbalance is that millions of Chinese men will be unable to find marriage partners in coming decades which may lead to major problems such as the trafficking in women and children. Furthermore, mothers suffer tremendous psychological pressure and health risks while undergoing sex-selected abortions, which affect both their physical and reproductive health. Other implications include increasing rates of sexual violence, increasing violence in general, prostitution, and deprivation of old age support for those individuals who never had opportunity to 'create' a social welfare system by way of offspring. The picture is largely a bleak one.
Some pundits on the other hand argue that the limited supply of women may in fact have a positive effect on the empowerment of women in general and specifically within marriages. This argument follows the basic economics principle of supply and demand.
That is, as women become scarcer they will appreciate in 'value' and therefore begin to play a more influential role in decision making processes within households and society in general.
Although lowering fertility rates is high on its agenda, the Chinese government appears well aware of the negative implications of China's gender imbalance - an indirect result of lowering fertility rates. In an attempt to halt the growing imbalance, China launched a "care for girls" campaign nationwide in the year 2000 to promote equality between men and women. The government has also offered cash incentives to girl-only families in the countryside. Indications are that the state will continue to support programs that fight discrimination against girls and to adopt more policies to ensure the healthy growth of girls. (Chinaview, 2007). These efforts are commendable.
In spite of the high association of rising SRB ratio/ EFCM with declining fertility rates, authorities have pledged to continue the 33 year old One Child policy. This the argument goes is because the country is still facing huge challenges as a result of its massive population. The leadership is thus caught up in a catch twenty two situation regarding its family planning policy and sex ratio imbalances. Giving up the policy is not a viable option as this may reverse many of the benefits Chinese people have enjoyed thus far from declining fertility rates. Relentlessly continuing it causes gender imbalances. The solution probably lies in the simultaneous implementation of the policy alongside "care for girls" programs that aim to return 'value' to the girl child.
Kabelo A Seitshiro The author has studied, worked and travelled extensively in China.