Tuesday, January 18, 2011

China's Growing Gender Gap - Another Side-effect of the One Child Policy

Updated November 2013

Sometimes, the best laid plans end up with unintended consequences.  As I posted here, China's one child policy has had a massive impact on their demography.  As many demographers have noted, the policy is already affecting the age distribution of China's citizens and will ultimately impact the number of younger Chinese that will, of necessity, have to support a rapidly growing population of senior citizens by the year 2050.  From a 2004 report "China's Population: New Trends and Challenges" by the Population Reference Bureau, in 1982, only 8 percent of the population was over 60 years of age.  That had risen to 10 percent by 2000 and it is anticipated that nearly 16 percent of China's population will be over 60 by the year 2020 and 27 percent by 2050.  This is in part due to reduced mortality which has led to longer lifespans but at least part of the blame has to be laid at the feet of China's one child policy.  

Here is a chart showing the changing number of China's over 60's with time:

The one child policy was borne of necessity.  The rapid population growth of the 1950s and 1960s led to a situation where two-thirds of the population was under the age of 30 and those who were born in China's baby boom were starting to enter their reproductive years.  In order to prevent China from outgrowing its ability to provide food for itself, the government implemented a short-term policy that governed the size of Chinese families.  The regulations included restrictions on the minimum age of marriage (20 for women and 22 for men), the number of children allowed per family and the spacing in years between children where more than one child was permitted.  The control of China's population planning is in the hands of the State Family Planning Bureau.  In general, the one child policy applies most rigorously to 35 percent of Chinese families; it is strictly enforced for urban residents and for government employees, however, waivers are granted where the parents are in high risk occupations, come from single child families or where the first child in a family is handicapped.  In rural areas, approximately 65 percent of Chinese families are allowed a second child after meeting certain criteria, a second child is most often allowed after five years but permission is most likely to be given where the first child is a girl since boys are preferred.  The remaining 5 percent of the population are allowed to have a second child with no conditions applied.

Here is a look at the changing fertility rate in China for the past 40 years:

The one child policy has had a marked impact on the use of contraception in China.  Eighty-seven percent of women use a form of contraception, most often IUDs or sterilizations.  Surprisingly (at least to me), the incidence of abortion in China is relatively low with only 25 percent of women having had at least one abortion compared to 43 percent in the United States.

Another unintended consequence of the one child policy becomes readily apparent when we look at the distribution of males versus females in the younger age groups in China, most particularly, those under 30 years of age since the policy was implemented in 1979.  While the exact numbers are difficult to substantiate, China may have up to 32 million more young men than young women.  In developed nations, the ratio of male to female births ranges from 1.03 to 1.07.  Since the one child policy was adopted in China, the ratio of males versus females has steadily increased from 1.06 in 1979 to 1.17 in 2001 with local rural ratios up to 1.3.  While it is often believed that rural ratios are higher than those found in urban areas, according to Kang and Wang (2003), the sex ratio for urban areas is 1.13 for the first birth and 1.3 for the second birth with the difference indicating that it is quite possible that gender specific abortions are taking place.  According to the Population Reference Bureau's study "Shortage of Girls in China", the country's 2000 census showed that there are 20 percent more boys than girls aged birth to 4 years of age and seven provinces with a total population of 387 million people have between 28 and 36 percent more boys than girls between birth and 4 years of age.  In rural areas, couples are generally allowed to have a second child if the first is female.  While gender specific abortions are illegal, other actions including possible infanticide, adoptions and abandonments are more likely where the second child is female.  Here is a chart showing the ratio of males to females based on birth order:

Here is a map showing the sex ratio of males to 100 females from the paper "China's excess males, sex selective abortion and one child policy..." taken from the intercensus survey of 1 percent of China's households completed in 2005:

Quite naturally, the United States Department of State has a stand on the issue.  Here is what the Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2009 for China has to say about the issue:

"Female babies suffered from a higher mortality rate than male babies, contrary to the worldwide norm. State media reported that infant mortality rates in rural areas were 27 percent higher for girls than boys and that neglect was one factor in their lower survival rate.

Laws and regulations forbid the termination of pregnancies based on the sex of the fetus, but because of the intersection of birth limitations with the traditional preference for male children, particularly in rural areas, many families used ultrasound technology to identify female fetuses and terminate these pregnancies. National Population and Family-planning Commission regulations ban nonmedically necessary determinations of the sex of the fetus and sex-selective abortions, but some experts believed that the penalties for violating the regulations were not severe enough to deter unlawful behavior. According to government estimates released in February 2008, the male-female sex ratio at birth was 120 to 100 at the end of 2007 (compared with norms elsewhere of between 103 and 107 to 100)."

Again, according to the United States Department of State Country Report on Human Rights, here are the consequences for those who choose to ignore the one child policy:

"The law requires each person in a couple that has an unapproved child to pay a "social compensation fee," which can reach 10 times a person's annual disposable income. The law grants preferential treatment to couples who abide by the birth limits.

Social compensation fees were set and assessed at the local level. The law requires family-planning officials to obtain court approval before taking "forcible" action, such as detaining family members or confiscating and destroying property of families who refuse to pay social compensation fees. However, in practice this requirement was not always followed, and national authorities remained ineffective at reducing abuses by local officials.

The population control policy relied on education, propaganda, and economic incentives, as well as on more-coercive measures. Those who violated the child limit policy by having an unapproved child or helping another do so faced disciplinary measures such as social compensation fees, job loss or demotion, loss of promotion opportunity, expulsion from the party (membership is an unofficial requirement for certain jobs), and other administrative punishments, including in some cases the destruction of private property.

.... Hunan Province required individuals conceiving children out of wedlock to pay 6 to 8 percent of their income from the previous year in addition to the standard social compensation fee. The law states that family-planning bureaus will conduct pregnancy tests on married women and provide them with unspecified "follow-up" services. Some provinces fined women who did not undergo periodic pregnancy tests. For example, in Hebei Province fines ranged from RMB 200 to RMB 500 (approximately $30 to $70), and in Henan Province fines ranged from RMB 50 to RMB 500 ($7 to $70)."

The gender imbalance makes it very difficult for many young men to find women to marry when they reach the age where marriage is allowed.  This shortage of marriageable women has led to an increase in human trafficking; women from poorer rural areas are often the victims as well as cross-border victims from nearby countries, most often North Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Mongolia.  Here is a description of the issue from the United States Department of State Country Report on Human Rights:

"Some experts and NGOs suggested that trafficking of persons was fueled by economic disparity and the effects of population-planning policies and that a shortage of marriageable women increased the demand for abducted women, especially in rural areas. The serious imbalance in the male-female ratio at birth, the tendency for women to leave rural areas to seek employment, and the cost of traditional betrothal gifts all made purchasing a wife attractive to some poor rural men. Some men recruited women from poorer regions, while others sought help from criminal gangs. UN research indicated most women trafficked internally were taken from areas with a very low GDP to areas with a very high GDP. Once in their new "families," these women were "married" and sometimes became victims of forced labor or rape. Some joined their new communities, others struggled and were punished, and a few escaped. Some former trafficking victims became traffickers themselves, lured by the prospect of financial gain."

Most cross-border trafficked women and girls came from Vietnam, Burma, North Korea, Mongolia, and Russia. Others came from Laos and Ukraine. All were trafficked into the country for sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and indentured servitude in domestic service or businesses.  Many North Korean women and girls were trafficked into the country to work in the sex industry and for forced marriages and other purposes, including forced labor."

Here is a closer look at human trafficking in China from the viewpoint of the United States Department of State in their 2013 annual report on the subject.  The Chinese government has been clamping down on human trafficking in recent years and has stated that police have cracked down on 10,000 alleged human trafficking organized crime groups and placed over 80,000 alleged suspects in criminal detention.  That said, State suggests that China's efforts to protect trafficked victims remained inadequate since only five out of 1400 shelters in the country were dedicated to caring for victims of human trafficking.  As well, it is unknown how many victims were actually helped since the government does not report this statistic.  

As I stated at the beginning of this posting, the best laid plans can have unintended consequences.  In the case of the one child policy, these consequences are rapidly becoming apparent and, because China is the world's factory, the consequences of their actions will spread throughout the world's economy and will ultimately impact all of us.



  1. You are talking nonsense. I hope you have ever lived in China. Basically, you have no idea.

    -- Chaodong from Vancouver, Canada

  2. It's not me that's talking nonsense. I'm just quoting from a wide-ranging selection of both government and private think-tank research.

  3. That only goes to show how widespread and entrenched racism is in America.

  4. Anoymous, if you can somehow prove this person wrong, then by all means go ahead.

    I will say this, though; China is very good at letting those who visit their country see the things they WANT THEM to see. If they don't want outsiders to get a glimpse of their dark underbelly, they have the means to do so.

    This has NOTHING to do with race. it has EVERYTHING to do with the personal eye-witness accounts and documented information supported by MANY groups who have done intensive investigation into these claims.

  5. I'm just quoting from a wide-ranging selection of both government and private think-tank research.

  6. Shitong said...Interesting to see this...As a Chinese I think we need to learn a lot from the author on digitalizing our observations of life.

    Somehow I also agree partially with one of the comments above, that "China is very good at letting those who visit their country see the things they WANT THEM to see."
    But I don't think it not always deliberately done.

    This is one of the biggest differences between cultures, that traditionaly Chinese perceptions focus more on the unknown instead of known, more on the invisibles instead of visibles.

    I would be happy to discuss such gaps with anyone.

  7. sorry for my poor spell, many typos... ;P

  8. Chaodong, if you cared to look into your motherland's(?) official stance on this, then Hu Jintao himself said back in 2004 that China had to fight the gender imbalance. Most of the numbers in this piece comes from Chinese government agencies. Beijing has even launched a nation-wide "Care for Girls" campaign in which they try to battle the age old desire for sons over daughters. There is no China bashing in this piece - it is pure fact and fact that is accepted by China's leadership itself.