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China’s One Child Policy and Unintended Consequences

April 16, 2009

At Slate, William Saletan has a compelling article about a new study showing that China’s One Child Policy has lead to a culture where girls are routinely aborted in such high numbers that “males under the age of 20 exceed females by 32 million”. The culture privileges boys to such an extent that a whole industry of sonograms and birth control has arisen to ensure that, where a Chinese family welcomes its one child into the family, the child most often is a boy. But policy makers realize that this numerical imbalance and high percentage of unmarried, single men brings with it a host of undesirable consequences, from higher crime to social instability. And, as a result, changes in policy and law are being implemented in an attempt to erode the preference for male children. From the article:

It’s a terrible convergence of ancient prejudice with modern totalitarianism. Girls are culturally and economically devalued; the government uses powerful financial levers to prevent you from having another child; therefore, to make sure you can have a boy, you abort the girl you’re carrying.

But maybe the story doesn’t end there. Maybe the reach and the cold rationality of modern totalitarian government can be turned against the old prejudice. Although the overall male-female ratio rose to 124 in the cohort of Chinese kids born from 2000 to 2004, the authors point out that “the ratio then declined to 119 (119 to 120) for the 2005 cohort, perhaps indicating the beginning of a reduction in sex ratios for the future.”

What could account for this decline? The authors explain:

The government is very aware of the problem and has openly expressed concerns about the consequences of large numbers of excess men for societal stability and security. As early as 2000 the government launched a range of policies to specifically counter the sex imbalance, the “care for girls” campaign. This includes changes in laws in areas such as inheritance by females, as well as an educational campaign to promote gender equality. These measures have had some success, with reports of lower sex ratios at birth in targeted localities.

In other words, the quota on children, translated through sexism into a quota on girls, has created a political problem for the government. And this, in turn, has forced the government to confront sexism economically and culturally. This policy change is being driven not by moral enlightenment but by practical necessity. The old problem was too many children. The new problem is too few girls. Without enough girls, the boys become unruly. So the government, following the same collective logic that inspired the one-child policy, has become the world’s biggest promoter of sexual equality.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Vertigo permalink
    April 16, 2009 11:17 am

    It’s too bad William Saletan offers a typical, stylized account of China’s “culture” as the main problem. The origins of China’s one-child policy and the effects of its implementation are much more nuanced. To simply write off the problem as “devaluing girls economically and culturally” is a lazy approach.

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