In China, More Girls Are on the Way

“Son preference” is slowly fading as China gets more educated
Beijing Photograph by Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

Priscilla Yang is standing outside Tuanjiehu Beijing Maternity Hospital, her husband dutifully holding aloft a purple umbrella to shield her from the blazing July sun. The 27-year-old is eight months pregnant and feeling relieved: Her latest rounds of prenatal tests came back normal.

Yang doesn’t know, but wonders about, the gender of her child. A college-educated public-relations executive, Yang says she hasn’t tried to wheedle illicit information from the maternity hospital staff. Boy or girl, “both are OK,” she says. “What I care most about is that the baby is healthy.”

Yang’s indifference about gender is becoming more common, though the struggle has been long. It has been illegal in China since 2001 for doctors to reveal the sex of the fetus to expectant parents. When ultrasound technology became widely available in the late 1980s, the number of sex-selective abortions shot up. Traditional Chinese culture prized sons, who performed heavy labor on farms and were expected to inherit land and stay home to care for elderly parents. Daughters left their parents’ household to join their husband’s after marriage. The one-child policy, announced in 1980 and enacted nationally within a few years, only intensified the desire for sons. Even after the 2001 law, many Chinese parents managed to bribe poorly paid doctors to see ultrasound results—then chose to abort female fetuses.

The result was a surplus of male babies. In 2004, China’s lopsided sex ratio reached 121.2 boys born for every 100 girls. (Without human intervention, 103 to 106 boys are born for every 100 girls.) The trend became most severe in isolated rural areas, where education levels were lowest and the farm economy’s reliance on sons continued to shape social attitudes; some of these areas have reported male ratios as high as 140.

China’s preference for male babies appears finally to have peaked. Official statistics show that for each of the past five years, China’s skewed gender ratio has narrowed; last year, 117.6 boys were born for every 100 girls nationwide. China is at “an inflection point on gender imbalance,” says Cai Yong, a demographer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He believes that government statistics undercount girls, because parents may not register daughters (especially if they were illegally born second or third children) and estimates the true ratio is closer to 115. “Ten years from now it will probably be about 110,” he says.

Researchers at Zhejiang University and University College London recently interviewed 212 men and women, ages 18 to 39, in both urban and rural areas of three Chinese provinces. The young respondents expressed very different attitudes from their parents. “Son preference isn’t common like it was before, and I think the sex [of the child] doesn’t matter,” said a 21-year-old woman in rural Zhejiang. As the researchers wrote in a 2013 paper in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies: “Evidence that son preference is weakening was a consistent finding across all the areas we explored. Many interviewees talked about how son preference was common in their parents’ generation but weak among their own peers.”

Urbanization and higher levels of education are blunting old attitudes. “When young people are more educated, they can push back more easily against tradition—especially against parental and grandparental expectations,” says Cai. “I grew up in a rural part of China, where everyone said you needed to have at least one son; in the old days people often said, ‘The more sons, the better.’ ” According to his research, in 2000 the majority of Chinese women of childbearing age had only middle school or lower education; by 2020, he projects that a quarter to a third of Chinese women will have attended college. Meanwhile, China’s massive program of urbanization continues; in 2011, for the first time, more than half the population was urban—the government estimates that by 2030, 70 percent will live in cities.

Daughters were once seen as a greater financial burden on their parents; today the reverse attitude is developing. The urban middle class expects the groom and his extended family to shoulder most of the financial responsibility for buying an apartment—sometimes regarded as a prerequisite to wedlock. (Getting hitched without already owning real estate is known as a “naked marriage.”) Guo Hui, a 31-year-old Beijing journalist, says, “If I have a baby, I would hope it’s a girl; boys are too expensive.”

As a result of the unbalanced sex ratio for the last 30 years, by 2020 China will be home to roughly 30 million more young men than women. That means a large number of men won’t be able to find wives—which has already increased the illegal trafficking of women from poorer neighboring countries, including Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Bachelors are also more prone to violence than their wedded peers.

The recent uptick in female births chronicled by UNC’s Cai will eventually blunt this negative development, but not until today’s girls grow up. “There still is a whole generation of excess males yet to enter the reproductive age group—and that is a serious cause for concern,” write the Zhejiang University researchers. At least the odds of young men looking for brides will gradually improve, and that’s a boon for them and China.

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