China’s Feminine Touch

On Tuesday, November 12th, top officials in the Chinese government emerged from a four day, closed-door conference entitled the Third Plenum, referring to the third time that the new leaders of China conduct a plenary session for the Central Committee, the highest authority within the Communist Party of China Third Plenums have historically served as platforms through which Chinese leadership unveil significant national reforms – in 1978, Deng Xiaoping used the Third Plenum for the 11th Central Committee to announce drastic economic liberalization.

Image courtesy of James Vaughan, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of James Vaughan, ©2011, some rights reserved.

This year’s Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, directed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Le Kiquang adopted an estimated 300 reforms, and issued a tepid communiqué which sketched out nebulous policy changes – e.g. “establishing a unified, open, competitive and ordered market system”[1]– without providing any substantive detail, casting doubt on the possibility for extensive change to China’s economy or social structure.

On Friday, November 15th, a detailed and comprehensive description of the Third Plenum’s reforms was released. Buried among the myriad socioeconomic restructurings, which largely focused on empowering rural Chinese residents and businesses, was an ostensibly monumental change to an entrenched social strategy: a relaxing – some dare say repeal – of China’s vaunted one child policy (OCP). The OCP will be reformed to allow couples in which one partner is an only child to have two children – previously, only couples in which both partners were only children were allowed this privilege. By government directive, the change was undertaken to promote “long term balanced development of the population in China”[2] and rejuvenate an economy slowed by lack of available labor and the burden of a growing elderly demographic. However, China’s new ‘two-child policy’ (TCP) will only serve as a substantial boon to Chinese society only if it is used to rectify the skewed gender ratio.

The OCP was introduced in the late 1970’s under Deng Xiaoping, who introduced China to free market economics in order to revive the stagnant, planned economy that had existed under Mao Zedong. China’s population was ballooning at the time: the traditional Confucian conception of family, propagated by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, advocated the idea of many children, resulting in a near-doubling of the Chinese population from 1949 (542 million) to 1974 (900 million). Such unimpeded population growth would have placed a great burden on resources and hampered the development of China’s economy, hence the prudent introduction of ‘family planning’ initiatives that limited the number of births. Though referred to as the one child policy, the latter policy was not a blanket restriction on all Chinese citizens: it is enforced more strictly in urban areas – which, as of last year, officially hold more Chinese citizens than rural areas (51.27% of China’s approximately 1.4 billion people)[3]. In the countryside, families were allowed two children if the first was a girl; in China, boys are more culturally valued, both due to historical precedent and the fact that men hold virtually all positions of power in China, be it in business or politics. This has led to a high rate of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions, as couples manipulate their situation such that their only child is a son. As a result, the gender ratio in China is massively imbalanced, with about 118 males born for every 100 females, far above the standard of 103 to 107 to 100.[4]

The implications of the lopsided ratio are deleterious: first, and perhaps most obviously, the prevalence of males has led to a shortage of eligible wives – by the end of this decade, there will be an estimated 24 million ‘leftover’ men with no family prospects and therefore no means by which to reproduce. The declining number of couples, compounded by the OCP, has led to a decrease in the ratio of working-age Chinese citizens.  By 2050, an estimated one-quarter of the Chinese population will be over 65[5], save if Beijing’s TCP is used to increase the number of female births rather than simply allow families two sons. Considering general reluctance by Chinese city-dwellers to invest in more children, granting permission for Chinese couples to have two children would do little to offset the labor shortage, even in the short-term; due to a Chinese preference for sons, couples who indulge in another child would exacerbate the negative effects of gender imbalance, which include high crime rates, sexual trafficking, and forced marriages.

The lack of available women in China has contributed to an exponential increase in crime. Low-skilled or uneducated Chinese are more likely to engage in criminal activity than those with better prospects, and statistical correlations have been made between a rise in the percentage of unmarried men and increased societal volatility[6]. With a dearth of women, only the most qualified men obtain brides, leaving behind a large demographic of single men with few possibilities for family life. Furthermore, the predominance of bachelors in Chinese society has led to a spike in prostitution and sexual trafficking of women from surrounding countries, such as Burma, Mongolia, and North Korea.

The TCP brought forth by the Third Plenum can be an important mechanism to rebalance Chinese gender ratios, but only if Chinese citizens utilize their newfound freedom to birth more girls. This would require both a revaluation of the importance of women in society and a shift in the parsimonious and increasingly individualistic tendencies of modern Chinese couples. The role of women in China is already changing due to both free-market development – which allows many women to hold full-time jobs and therefore support their relatives as ably as men – and a concerted effort by the Chinese government to promote the merits of daughters, entitled the ‘Care for Girls’ program. However, China’s urban fertility rates began declining even before the introduction of the OCP in 1979, signaling that Chinese city-dwellers, at least, do not necessarily want more children. In fact, the rate of urban fertility declined more slowly after the OCP was implemented than in the previous decade, implying that though the policy certainly may have precluded a good number of births – Mao Yuqun, spokesperson for the National Health and Family Planning Commission, claims that it has prevented about 400 million[7] – a shift in social norms and a rising cost of living seems to play a considerably larger role. In an online survey conducted immediately after the announcement of the TCP, 37% of women claimed they would “opt out” of having another child, due to exorbitant childcare costs. Though money is an issue, the three-decade enforcement of the OCP has, especially in urban areas, culminated in an individualistic Chinese culture that privileges conjugal bonds over filial ties. Chinese couples are more dedicated to each other than to their children, seeing the latter as merely a means for financial support in old age. In China’s current socioeconomic climate, raising only one son – to say nothing of two – requires an increasing amount of resources, yet a male child is still more likely to obtain a lucrative position than would a daughter … or two. Two male children, therefore, would be able to best provide for their aging parents.

China’s TCP has the potential to improve China’s lopsided gender balance and contribute to future economic growth.  To succeed, however, the government will have to go beyond merely permitting two children per couple and provide more robust economic incentives for both having those children and a stronger social push to encourage families to make those children daughters. Only then will the ‘two child policy’ succeed in reaching the goals laid out by the Chinese government.