A recent blog post centered around the issue of population growth in the world and how this growth, and its consequences, have impacted women. The issue I would like to discuss is the One Child Policy in the People's Republic of China, which was adopted in 1978 as a measure to limit population growth and alleviate the very poor social and economic conditions in that country. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine gives a good description of the one child policy:
"In 1979, the Chinese government embarked on an ambitious program of market reform following the economic stagnation of the Cultural Revolution. At the time, China was home to a quarter of the world's people, who were occupying just 7 percent of world's arable land. Two thirds of the population were under the age of 30 years, and the baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s were entering their reproductive years. The government saw strict population containment as essential to economic reform and to an improvement in living standards. So the one-child family policy was introduced. The policy consists of a set of regulations governing the approved size of Chinese families. These regulations include restrictions on family size, late marriage and childbearing, and the spacing of children (in cases in which second children are permitted). The State Family Planning Bureau sets the overall targets and policy direction. Family-planning committees at provincial and county levels devise local strategies for implementation."
Since its adoption in 1979, the policy has been credited with having prevented some 300 million births, which is is undoubtedly an impressive achievement. When one also considers that the present-day population of mainland China (excluding the island of Taiwan) is well over 1.3 billion and that even this population is deemed to be far too high and a social and economic burden on China's natural resources and finances, one can appreciate the benefits of this one child policy. The fertility rate presently stands at 1.7.
Although this low fertility rate would, under normal conditions, be expected to work against any population increase, the improving state of health, with lower infant mortality rates and lower death rates, has exacerbated the overpopulation crisis. Although China has made enormous progress in the last 62 years (since 1949, when the country was unified under Maoist rule after many years of bloody civil war), GDP per capita (measured in purchasing power parity) stands at only $8,394 (90th in the world). Given this reality, the one child policy is perceived by the Chinese government and by many Chinese as a necessary, albeit harsh, measure. Perhaps less well known are the effects the policy has had on the female population of China; specifically, the female-male sex ratio. The 2010 census reports that there are 118.06 boys born for every 100 girls. This is far higher than the normal range, which is 105:100. Males are 51.27% of the population while females are 48.73%.
Many Chinese families prefer, for a multitude of reasons (e.g. cultural, financial), males over females and this is thought to be the primary cause of this extreme gender imbalance. Abortion and abandonment are very common and even infanticide has been known to occur. Many are worried about what this male-female imbalance could mean for China's future. This report from the BBC highlights the concerns widely expressed by many people:
"The gender imbalance could lead to social instability, the report by the State Population and Family Planning Commission warned...A traditional preference for boys, in a country with a one-child policy, is the root of the problem, the report says. Abortions on female foetuses are believed to be widespread as couples, particularly in rural areas, hope for a son who will look after them in their old age...Nationwide this means there will be 30 million more men than women by 2020, making it difficult for those particularly with low income or little education to find a wife, the report said. "The increasing difficulties men face finding wives may lead to social instability," the report said. The report went on: "We need to develop a 'movement to embrace girls'... and effectively contain the trend towards greater gender imbalances."
Preference for sons over daughters is rooted mainly in economic (but also in traditional) motives. In rural areas, sons are more able to provide help with farm work. In both rural and urban areas, sons are preferred because they are thought to be better able to provide financial support for parents in their old age. The relatively low number of female births is thought to be due to a number of factors, one of which is the availability of ultrasound, which enables parents to determine the sex of the fetus. Infanticide, abandonment of girls, and underreporting of female births are thought to be the three other major causes. In spite of the existence of these enduring problems, the one child policy continues. While its impact on China's overall socioeconomic development may be, all things considered, a positive (though even this is heavily disputed), its impact on China's female population is already causing serious problems, with many Chinese males unable to find partners and the resulting psychological issues arising as a result of this phenomenon. It remains to be seen what measures the Chinese government will take to mitigate the negative effects of its radical policies.