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.
What 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.”