The first item that I wrote on this blog almost a year ago was about the gender imbalance in parts of Asia (particularly China) and the danger that it could lead to increased nationalism and war in that part of the world. I obviously liked to start the blog off on a happy note…Today, I want to return to that same theme and look at a long piece written by Nicholas Eberstadt and published in the Fall (Autumn for those of us not living in the US) 2011 edition of The New Atlantis.  Eberstadt is someone who we have quoted before – see this earlier blog detailing his article on the demographic decline of Russia.

Eberstadt’s New Atlantis article is provocatively entitled “The Global War Against Baby Girls”.  In it, he details the shocking statistics from various parts of the world that show the results of sex-selective feticide.  The ability to determine the sex of a baby before he or she is born is now widespread, as is the ability to abort that baby if the parents wish to.  These abilities have resulted in what Eberstadt describes as:

“…an ominous and entirely new form of gender discrimination: sex-selective feticide…In terms of its sheer toll in human numbers, sex-selective abortion has assumed a scale tantamount to a global war against baby girls.”

Come now, surely it isn’t that bad? A global war? Those dreadful things kill millions don’t they? Well:

“The practice has become so ruthlessly routine in many contemporary societies that it has impacted their very population structures, warping the balance between male and female births and consequently skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males. This still-growing international predilection for sex-selective abortion is by now evident in the demographic contours of dozens of countries around the globe — and it is sufficiently severe that it has come to alter the overall sex ratio at birth of the entire planet, resulting in millions upon millions of new ‘missing baby girls’ each year.”

First of all, Eberstadt looks at the “missing” girls in China (a nice euphemism, as if we have just misplaced them somewhere, rather that deliberately aborting them).  He starts by explaining that there is a regular relationship between the number of male and female births in the human population – the sex ratio at birth (SRB) for large populations generally falls within a narrow range of 103-106 boys for every 100 girls. Thus, there is a naturally occurring slight “oversupply” of boys at birth.  One of the founders of demography, the German priest and statistician argued in 1741 that:

“the Creator’s reasons for ensuring four to five percent more boys than girls are born lie in the fact that it compensates for the higher male losses due to the recklessness of boys, to exhaustion, to dangerous occupations, to war, to seafaring and immigration, thus maintaining the balance between the two sexes so that everyone can find a spouse at the appropriate time for marriage.”

However, in China, this naturally occurring oversupply has grown alarmingly.  In 1982, China was reporting a nationwide SRB of 108.5, by 1995, this had grown to 115.6 and by 2005 a “mini-census” of 1% of the population was reporting an SRB of 118.9.  This divergence between the number of boys and girls is even wider if the scope is extended to the population under 5 years old – in 2005 the ratio for this cohort was 122.7!  So, not only are more boys being born in China than girls, more of them are surviving infancy.  Eberstadt recognises that these figures are not 100% accurate, but maintains that they are still indicative of a disturbing trend:

“Although, as recently noted in a study by Daniel M. Goodkind in the journal Demography, there remain some discrepancies and inconsistencies among data sources (census numbers, vital registration reports, hospital delivery records, school enrollment figures, and so on) concerning China’s SRBs and child sex ratios over the past two decades, there is absolutely no doubt that shockingly distorted sex ratios for newborns and children prevail in China today — and that these gender imbalances have increased dramatically during the decades of the One Child Policy.”

When the data is broken down within China, it shows that the SRB is higher in rural areas than in cities – thus in 2005, the SRB was 123 for rural areas, 120 for towns and 115 for cities.  At the regional level, only three provinces reported “normal” SRBs, while two (Anhui and Shaanxi) reported SRBs above 130.  Eberstadt provides a map of China broken down by country and illustrating the sex imbalance in the 0-4 year age cohort in the year 2000.  What it shows is a marked regional variation:

“…sex ratios are essentially “normal” (105 or lower) in much of Western China and along parts of the country’s northern border — areas where non-Han ethnic minorities predominate — while unnatural gender imbalances characterize virtually the entirety of the Han-majority areas in China’s east and south. There are tremendous variations in the extremity of the condition within this Han expanse: a number of inland and coastal areas stand out as epicenters of the problem, and are marked by concentrations of counties, each encompassing millions or tens of millions of people, wherein child sex ratios of 150 or greater prevail.”

When broken down by birth order, Eberstadt’s research sheds more light – while SRBs for firstborn children remains within the “normal” range of around 105, in 2005 the SRBs for second births was 143 and for third births was 156.  Why is there this massive difference between firstborn Chinese children and their younger siblings?

“An influential 2006 Harvard dissertation by Emily Oster hypothesized that the emerging gender imbalances in China and elsewhere were primarily a consequence of the spread of the hepatitis B virus, which is known to skew SRBs in favor of male babies in maternal carriers — but clearly that theory cannot account for the extraordinary and continuing disparities between first births and higher-order births in China. Instead, it is by now widely recognized that these gender disparities are the consequence of parental intervention — namely, mass feticide, through the agency of medically induced abortion and prenatal gender determination technology. Chinese parents appear to have been generally willing to rely upon biological chance for the sex outcome of their first baby — but with increasing frequency they have been relying upon health care technology and services to ensure that any second- or higher-order baby would be a boy.”

So why are Chinese SRBs so imbalanced?  Eberstadt dismisses the argument that it is due to “backward” thinking in China for the following reasons:

  1. High SRBs are almost entirely a Han phenomenon within China. Han Chinese are generally better educated and more affluent that non-Han minorities;
  2. Although SRBs are higher in rural than urban areas, this have more to do with the rural areas higher fertility levels – there are more second and third pregnancies in rural China and these tend to be overwhelmingly male.
  3. There has been an extraordinary surge in development and prosperity in China during the same period that its SRB has become so imbalanced. Between 1982 and 2005, female illiteracy dropped from 25% to 4%, the mean years of schooling for Chinese women rose by nearly 50%, estimated per capita income jumped nearly fivefold while the fraction of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from 75% to roughly 15%. 
  4. Finally, China is far more open to the outside world today than it was in the early 1980s (as shown by statistics on international trade, investment, finance to travel and communications). 

Thus, to say that China’s SRB figures are due to its “backwardness” and lack of education and wealth is not backed up by the statistics.  No doubt a lot of it has to do with the Chinese One Child policy, but as we shall see next week, when I will look at the rest of Eberstadt’s piece, China is not the only country in the world to have a large SRB imbalance.  Until then, have a great weekend everyone (we’re off to my cousin’s wedding in Napier – about 5 hours drive away) and those of you with daughters, be especially grateful for them.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...