According to the updated version of China’s new one-child policy, formalized by the country’s top legislative committee in the final days of 2013, couples in which one parent is an only child are now permitted to have a second child. Rural couples whose first child is a girl are also entitled to a second, presumably so they can try for a much-coveted boy, which is particularly important in areas where men are needed to do the heavy lifting.
It’s easy to conceptualize this second part of the policy as indicative of China’s famous patriarchal system and history of infanticide and abandonment in favor of baby boys, responsible for millions of “lost girls” and an unbalanced sex ratio that will leave an estimated 30 million adult Chinese men unmarried by 2020.
Thankfully, the story is not so simple. According to experts on Chinese society and family planning, the value of women in China has actually been increasing as a consequence—surprisingly enough—of the oppressive one-child policy introduced in 1978 and enacted in 1979.
“The value of girls and status of women have increased tremendously,” said Vanessa Fong, an Associate Professor at Amherst College. “And, ironically, it is partly due to the one-child policy. Families that have a bias against daughters obviously don’t have daughters, and ensure they have sons. But that also means that families with only one girl are supportive of their daughter, and invest heavily in her education and future.”
Furthermore, Chinese culture dictates that men are expected to provide housing for their families and take care of elderly parents. “So if a family has limited resources and a son, they will fund his housing. If they have a daughter in the same situation, they will fund her education, and she will likely marry a wealthier man—a means of upward mobility that’s not available to men because of the shortage of women,” said Fong.
As a result, she says, women are performing better than men in lower levels of education, score higher on foreign language aptitude tests and are increasingly receiving advanced degrees. The gains for women are also reflected in the workforce.
“As fertility declines, the status of daughters is increasingly equal to the status of sons, and in urban areas, they are almost equal to boys.”
Fong says the one-child policy has limited fertility rates and therefore freed mothers to return to school and/or the job market, rather than investing resources in large numbers of children. “The first generation of mothers during the one-child policy proved they were able to work and in many cases, support their natal families as well as, or better than, men could. Their success changed people’s attitudes about the role of women.”
China’s mass urbanization, while not without its many pitfalls, might also have helped to increase the status of women. Traditionally, people had to find spouses outside of their own village, with women moving to her husband’s village. “Without cars or regular buses between villages, a daughter would rarely see her natal family after marriage, and lose the emotional attachment and the ability to care for her aging parents,” said Fong. In an urban environment, however, both sets of parents are accessible, making it easier for daughters to care for their parents. Today the gender imbalance is smaller in urban areas, where women are also in higher demand for jobs related to international tourism.
But the situation is still improving in some rural areas. According to research conducted by Weiguo Zhang, an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, rural women in the Hebei District in northern China have increasingly maintained ties with their natal families beginning with the end of Mao’s collectivism and the introduction of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in the late 1970s. Globalization and market expansions have also created opportunities for men and women to work away from their villages, with women often moving in with their natal families while their husbands work away from home.
“It’s definitely true that the value of girls is still increasing in Chinese families,” said Zhang. “I have even heard recently of families selectively aborting second sons in order to get a daughter, or preferring to have a daughter over a son.”
Kay Johnson, a Professor at Amherst College and the author of Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son: Abandonment, Adoption and Orphanage Care in China, says that adoption patterns indicate that girls were valued in Chinese families even as some were being abandoned. Her research in the 1990s indicated that first-born daughters were rarely abandoned, even when infant abandonment was widespread; and local, unofficial adoptions of girls was a regular practice, especially by families without a daughter.
“There is a saying in Mandarin—er nu shuang quan—which translates to ‘Son and daughter make a whole (family).’ If you look at the adoptive side of it, Chinese families in the 1990s always wanted daughters,” Johnson said. “From Vanessa Fong’s work, we see that as fertility declines, the status of daughters is increasingly equal to the status of sons, and in urban areas, they are almost equal to boys.”
More good news: Experts agree that infanticide and abandonment is way down, partly because of lower fertility rates, partly because of technology that allows for selective abortion and partly because families are continuing to find ways to keep over-quota children, who are often daughters. Today, adopted daughters are in such high demand domestically (despite the fact that international adoptions have slowed dramatically in the last decade or so) that it can take years of searching before a qualified Chinese couple finds a healthy girl to adopt.
According to Fong, sons will likely be preferred in families that prioritize continuing their patrilineal lineage, a notion deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture, and by those that believe sons are necessary for successful veneration of their ancestors. But we can still be happy that the overall trend is looking up.
So what will happen if the one-child policy, which has already been loosened, is reversed outright, or changed to a simple two-child policy as some have suggested?
“It’s hard to say,” said Fong. “But let’s put it this way. Once people believe daughters can do as well or better than sons, how much of that attitude is really reversible? I don’t think you can force a genie back in a bottle.”