Population Trends and Demography

Adding “Forced” Bachelors to “Missing” Girls: The Gendered Outcomes of China’s Population Policy

I recently attended a 30th anniversary celebration in Beijing for the China Population and Development Research Center, which hosted an international seminar on demographic research.   Those were the same 30 years that China has restricted its citizens to having what now amounts to around 1.5 children.  While the label “one-child policy,” has always been a misnomer since there are exceptions, including for couples in some areas whose first child is a daughter, there is no mistaking that China has had a stringent fertility policy.  With a three decade perspective, we can now see what has unfolded in people’s lives as a result of the policy.  After it was announced in 1979, the policy was questioned for  a range of reasons.  In addition to the human rights issues inherent in the policy, demographers and sociologists also highlighted the potential social and gender implications of sharply constraining fertility. 

China policyWhat has been the result of preference for boys when couples are allowed only one child?  Even in 1982, when I lived in China as a graduate student studying China’s family planning policy and program, it was clear that if people could only have one or, under certain circumstances, two or more children, many had a preference for sons.  This cartoon appeared in a Chinese newspaper in 1983 and was reprinted in an article I wrote for American Demographics in 1984 titled, “Implications of China’s One Child Policy.”  

Much has been written over the years about gender discrimination faced by females that has been exacerbated by the population policy.   The outcome has been a strongly skewed sex ratio at birth, which is now the highest in the world favoring boys.  For every 100 girls born, 120 boys are born (a normal sex ratio at birth is around 106 boys: 100 girls). Boys are often  called China’s little emperors.  

Less has been written about the negative effects of the population policy for men, but, it is critical to start addressing the effects of the policy on women AND men. China can learn from the  gender relational perspective, which represents current global gender discourse, and is articulated in Margaret Greene and Andrew Levack’s upcoming  IGWG paper, “Synchronizing Gender Strategies: A Cooperative Model for Gender Transformation,”      

Ironically, the ultrasound machines throughout China that were put in place to ensure that compulsory IUDs stayed in place, were the same machines that told parents the sex of their fetus.  Professor Dudley Poston and colleagues have been writing about this for a number of years.  At the demography seminar in Beijing, Professor Poston presented his most recent calculation:  between 1983 and 2010 more than 40 million boys were born who will not be able to get married.   That number is more than the total population of California, or half the population of Germany.  If the sex ratio at birth does not become more balanced, this number will grow.  These men have been labeled “forced bachelors,” and studies are being undertaken about how to “manage” the growing undesirable bachelor subculture, including from a public safety perspective.   Until now, the one-child policy has been assessed by the damage to women’s physical and psychological health, bride stealing and rising HIV rates and crime.  But equally important is the physical and psychological lives of men.

Officially, China has adhered to the proverb that “Women Hold up Half the Sky” and has enacted gender equity laws.  Family planning posters have long shown pictures of parents with a daughter and a current Caring for Girls campaign is underway to combat traditional Chinese culture, blamed for the discrimination against girls.   None of these attempts has worked to budge the sex ratio.  Analysis shows that the sex ratio is more equal in areas with looser fertility restrictions. However,  the policy to allow a second birth if the first is a daughter has resulted in very skewed sex ratios for those second births in favor of sons.  It is time to acknowledge that China’s fertility policy has had unfortunate social consequences for BOTH women and men.   In addition to easing the fertility policy, which a group of prominent Chinese demographers is calling for, it is time to limit the use of ultrasound machines and change the gender discourse in China.  The Caring for Girls campaign should shift to a campaign to Care for Girls and Boys Equally.  A new proverb should be coined:  “Women and Men Hold Up the Sky Together.” 

One Response to “Adding “Forced” Bachelors to “Missing” Girls: The Gendered Outcomes of China’s Population Policy”

  1. Steven Earl Salmony

    On the need for humane regulation of human population numbers………..
    There a precious few scientists like Professor Emeritus Gary Peters who have chosen not to remain silent but instead to accept their responsibility to science by rigorously examining extant evidence of human population dynamics. Please consider now the perspective of Dr. Peters on the research of Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel, which is found in the journal, The California Geographer, 2009. The title of his article is, Population, Resources and Enviroment: “Beyond the Exponentials” Revisited.
    “The world’s population in 2009 was close to 6.8 billion. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, we can expect about 55.7 million people to die this year, so in purely demographic terms 300,000 deaths amount to just over half of one percent of all deaths. Furthermore, there are about 15,465 births per hour worldwide, so again in a purely demographic sense those 300,000 deaths can be replaced in less than 20 hours.
    Paradoxically, the very fossil fuels that have allowed us to feed the vast increase in world population over the last century or two may 113 The California Geographer n Volume 49, 2009 also be starting to increase mortality rates, even if only slightly so far. Currently we add about 80 million people to the planet each year, and we know that population growth exacerbates most environmental problems, including global warming (Speth 2008, Diamond 2005, and Friedman 2008).
    Pimentel (2001), Hopfenberg (2003), and others have established in a series of articles that human population growth is a function of food supply, yet we continue to expand food supplies to accommodate future growth—even if that growth threatens the planet’s socioeconomic systems, ecosystems, biodiversity, oceans,
    and atmosphere. Continued expansion of food supplies has come at considerable cost both to people and to Earth. As Pollan (2008, 121) commented, “Clearly the achievements of industrial agriculture have come at a cost: It can produce a great many more calories per acre, but each of those calories may supply less nutrition than
    it formerly did…. A diet based on quantity rather than quality has ushered a new creature onto the world stage: the human being who manages to be both overfed and undernourished, two characteristics seldom found in the same body in the long natural history of our species.” According to Heller and Keoleian (2000), it takes seven to ten calories of input, mainly from fossil fuels, to produce one calorie of edible food in the United States. Looking at the American landscape, Babbitt (2005, 100) observed that “[I]ndustrial agriculture has been extended too far, and the price has been too high for the land and waters to bear.” In many places, agricultural landscapes are no longer what Tuan (1993, 143) had in mind when he wrote that “In common with the vast majority of humankind, Americans
    love the small intimate world that is their home, and, immediately beyond it, a rich agricultural land.”
    According to Pimentel (2001), humans already use more than half the planet’s entire biomass, leaving less and less for other species. From there, as Hopfenberg (2009, 2) noted, “It is not a far logical leap to determine that, if human population and resource use continues to grow and we continue to kill off our neighbors in the biological community, one of the many species facing extinction will be the human. Thus, the impact of civilized humanity on the rest of the
    biological community can be seen as lethal to the point of destroying our own ecological support”. It is a reminder that, as Bush (2000, 28) noted, “If there is one lesson that the geological record offers, it is that all species will ultimately go extinct, some just do it sooner than others.” With the expansion of human numbers has come a steady increase in the background rate of extinction.
    But even among environmentalists, population has been dropped from most discussions because it is controversial; it has been snared in the web of political correctness. As Speth (2008, 78) somewhat ironically pointed out, “By any objective standard, U.S. population growth is a legitimate and serious environmental issue. But the subject is hardly on the environmental agenda, and the country has not learned how to discuss the problem even in progressive circles.” Cobb (2007, 1) put it this way, “Even if some politicians, policymakers and reporters in wealthy countries can see beyond the daily mirage of plenty to the overpopulation problem, they do
    not want to touch it.”
    It is one thing for “politicians, policymakers and reporters” not to touch research of human population dynamics and the human overpopulation of Earth. It is something altogether different when the elective mutism of scientists with appropriate expertise hides science in silence. Such a willful refusal to scrutinize peer-reviewed and published evidence and report findings strikes me as a betrayal of science and also a denial of what could somehow be real.
    How are global challenges of the kind we can see looming before humanity in our time to be addressed and overcome if any root cause of what threatens us and life as we know it is not acknowledged?
    Of course, it could be that Professor Peters’ assessment of the research by Pimentel and Hopfenberg is incorrect; that their work is fatally flawed. If that is the case, we need to know it. On the other hand, if that is not the case and the research is somehow on the correct track, then discussion of the research needed to have begun years ago, at the onset of Century XXI, because this research appears, at least to me, to possess extraordinary explanatory power with potentially profound implications.
    Thanks to those within the community of scientists and to those in the population at large with a perspective to share who choose to examine the evidence to which your attention is drawn and report your findings.
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

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