Monday, November 28, 2011

One Child Policy in China

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.


Caitlin said...

Great post! I have so many questions now...One wonders whether additional government incentives for rearing girls could be introduced, or could have been introduced, to lower the extremely disparate male:female child ratio.

But what would be appropriate? Tax cuts? Medical bill coverage?

And what, culturally and legally, makes boys so much more desireable in China than girls? Is it the carrying on of the family name? Perhaps boys must take care of their parents when they reach old age but girls are not required to do so?

If China were to attempt to fix this ratio, how could it possibly do it? Also, if population issues hypothetically result in more gays and lesbians, has a study been done to examine the incidence of homosexuality in China?

Rose Sawyer said...

I Regarding China

One issue that China is facing due to the one-child policy is the so-called two-four-eight problem. [1] In China, caring for one's elders is a social must. I spent a summer in Beijing and, based off of my talks with college-aged women and men, this seemed to be true regardless of gender. The problem with the one-child policy is that it leaves one child (and his or her spouse, thus "two") caring for four parents and eight grandparents in their old age. This burden is significant. According to [2], per "2005 government figures, the ratio of average income between women and men with junior high school diploma was 68 percent; 78 percent for senior high school diploma; 80 percent for junior college certificates; and 83 percent for college education."* Thus, even at the "best" level, men still make 17 percent more than women. When you're doing to have someone caring for you and seven others in your old age, it is somewhat rational to want a candidate statistically-likely to make 17 percent more.

* Note that China's news sources tend to be rather optimistic. For example, a search of for "Tianmen" suggests that the Square is "a famous scenic spot."


II Regarding the United States

I have often wondered how the one-child policy would far in the United States. In Roe v. Wade, the Court decided that the right to privacy under the 14th Amendment extends to a woman's right to have an abortion, but that this right might give way to state interests in pre-natal life and protecting the woman's health.

So far, courts have looked unfavorably on the one child policy as a human rights violation. The American media relays horrific stories of fines, arrests, late-term abortions, and sterilizations. Courts have even found, that under immigration law the United States should grant asylum to those fleeing the policy. Specifically, an alien who has been forced to abort a pregnancy or to undergo involuntary sterilization, or who has been persecuted for resistance to a coercive population control program, has suffered past persecution on account of political opinion and qualifies as a refugee within the amended definition of that term under § 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. [3][4]

As the world approaches a population of 7 billion, though, I can't help but wonder if at some point population density might raise such serious health concerns that it could be said to jeopardize "life" in the abstract? If this were the case, here in the U.S., would individual reproductive autonomy give way to collective reproductive policy?

[3] Raina Nortick, Singled Out: A Proposal to Extend Asylum to the Unmarried Partners of Chinese Nationals Fleeing the One-Child Policy, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 2153 (2007)
[4] 1 A.L.R. Fed. 2d 89 (Originally published in 2005); see also
In re G-C-L, 23 I. & N. Dec. 359, 2002 WL 1001051 (B.I.A. 2002)

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Wow, I never thought of the Chinese policy in this light! I've long been aware of China's justification for the One Child Policy. By all accounts, it has worked to reduce the growth of their population. But I've never imagined its effect from a feminist perspective.

The economic and gender consequences of this policy are astounding, including the 2-4-8 effect. But I am also left with another question. Given Chinese culture's preference for males over females and its decreasing gender ratios, it appears that a greater number of Chinese men are unable to find spouses. If this trend continues and the ratio becomes even more disparate, what effect will this have on the Chinese economy?

In other words, I am imagining a situation similar to the American Social Security System. As the men:women ratio grows, there will be fewer women for men to date or marry. Fewer couples results in fewer children, which further exacerbates the ratio. Eventually, the Chinese society could have a large elderly population with fewer young adults to support them. How will the Chinese government respond to the economic consequences of this? Their policy a short-term "benefit" to population overgrowth but will it damage their economy in the long-term?

Megan said...

I was just talking with my language-exchange friend about this! He has a son was telling me that his wife, upon finding out that she was bearing a baby boy, was so relieved and happy. I alwasy thought that there was perhaps a residual preference for boys but that, in practice today, parents were equally satisfied with either. Apparently, I am wrong. He explained that families still think that it is good luck to have a son and that, while it is related to passing on the family name, the preference is more deeply rooted in the Chinese culture. He also told me that rural families can sometimes petition to have more than one child, especially if they had a daughter the first time, perhaps because of the need for manual labor. Finally, I asked him what would happen if he and his wife accidentally (or purposely) got pregnant again and decided to keep the child. He told me that they would both lose their jobs.

Girl Talk said...

Fascinating post. I have a few thoughts - one, you mentioned that the percentage of the population that is male is higher than normal, but you mentioned that the normal ratio is 105 boys for every 100 girls. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that generally, there are slightly more women than men in the population.

Secondly, I find it interesting that one of the reasons parents prefer males to females in rural areas is that "sons are more able to help with farm work." This seems misguided. Do they think this because, traditionally, females are not expected to do farm work? Girls are just as capable of boys as helping with farm work.

I do think that the one child limit is both beneficial and detrimental for the reasons you have given. I think a proper remedy, if it comes, will only come once the people (or should I say government) of China decide what they value more - curbing population growth or preventing female infanticide? I don't have much hope that it would be the former.