SHANGHAI – Last week China released new census data showing that Chinese families favor sons over daughters. In 2014, according to the data, Chinese women gave birth to 115.9 boys for every 100 girls. (The natural human birth ratio is around 105 boys to every 100 girls.) Skewed gender ratios of this sort date back to the early 1980s, and the impact has been cumulative. China now has 33 million more men than women, tens of millions of whom may never be able to find mates.
The Chinese government has recently attempted to alter this dynamic by loosening its family planning policies. But new research suggests that this well-meaning policy shift could be counter-productive.
China’s so-called one-child policy was initiated in the early 1980s with the goal of slowing the country’s population growth. According to the prevailing narrative, it also had the effect of skewing the country’s gender balance. The policy is said to have encouraged expectant parents who harbored a traditional preference for sons over daughters to seek out ultrasounds and — if a girl was expected — to pursue sex selective abortions. In that sense, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s loosening of the one-child policy in Nov. 2013 might reasonably be expected to begin correcting the country’s gender imbalance.
But the demographic effects of the one-child policy were never so straightforward. Except for its first few years, the policy allowed parents to have second and third (and more) children, depending on where in China they lived. A 2010 study revealed that 65 percent of Chinese parents, mostly concentrated in rural areas, were subject to “one-plus” child policies, whereby a second, or even a third child, was permitted.
In certain provinces parents were allowed to have a second child if their first child was a girl — thereby reducing the incentive to abort a first baby for gender reasons.
Census data reveals, however, that Chinese families with multiple children have made a disproportionate contribution in recent years to the country’s gender imbalance. According to an analysis of census data from 2000, 51.5 percent of first children surveyed were boys — a nearly normal sex ratio.
But in those cases where a first child was a girl, 62 percent of the children who followed were sons — a completely unnatural ratio. And, in those cases where families had two daughters, the likelihood that a third child would be a son was 70 percent.
The phenomenon isn’t just confined to the 2000 census. A 2009 study of Chinese census data taken in 2005 showed that second born children had an average sex ratio of 146 boys to 100 girls (and, in nine provinces it exceeded 160 to 100), while first children, again, had nearly normal sex ratios. And as recently as 2011, the Chinese province of Heilongjiang reported a sex ratio of 113.45 to 100 for second order births and 147 to 100 for third order births. In all cases, it’s second children — not the first born children that one would assume would be most affected by the one-child policy — that make the greatest contribution to China’s unbalanced sex ratio.
What explains this phenomenon? At least two studies have shown that families allowed to have two-children maintain a preference for boys that co-exists with a desire for a male-female mix (a male-male mix is less desirable). In other words: If a couple desires a boy and a girl — as many Chinese apparently do — the least emotionally and financially draining means of ensuring that outcome is to allow nature to take its course with the first child, and sex select as necessary with the second.
But if China’s family planning policies didn’t create the gender imbalance, what did? Research suggests that China’s liberalizing economic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s — reforms that were initiated around the same time as the one-child policy — may be responsible, by providing Chinese women with the economic means to travel and pay for ultrasounds (and sex selective abortions). According to a 2014 study, women in China with high school educations (and, presumably, more earning power) were 7.4 percent more likely to have a boy as their second child than women with no formal schooling, while sex ratio imbalances were most pronounced in counties with the greatest growth in economic output.
In other words, economic development seems to enable families to act on existing cultural biases. And this phenomenon isn’t unique to China. A 2011 study in the medical journal The Lancet showed that in India — where sex ratios are also skewed — the likelihood that a second-order birth would be a boy rose in tandem with household income and the mother’s educational attainment
India doesn’t have a one-child (or one-plus child) policy. But the fact that it’s facing a similar problem strongly suggests there are deep-seated cultural factors at work in both countries. China, in other words, won’t be able to correct its gender imbalance simply by loosening its family planning policies.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.