Chinese Population Study Confirms "Millions of Girls Are Missing"

Story posted July 07, 2004

A new study on Chinese population trends written by Bowdoin Professor Nancy Riley reveals dramatic changes in the social, economic and political health of the nation where nearly one-fifth of the world's population resides. Among the most influential of these changes are those that have happened as a result of the revolutionary and controversial policy to restrict births in an effort to reduce poverty that began in the early 1980s, writes Riley in "China's Population: New Trends and Challenges," published by the Population Reference Bureau. Riley's study was featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered (visit: www.npr.org).

"Millions and millions of girls are missing ... There have been reports - even in the Chinese press - that some of these [girls] have been killed at birth."

Now, demographic data reveal what public watchdogs have long decried, she says: "Millions and millions of girls are missing ... There have been reports - even in the Chinese press - that some of these [girls] have been killed at birth. There are different pieces of evidence, but none of us know how extensive it is. Some girls are abandoned. Either they die or they end up in an institution. Some are just hidden."

Son preference has a long history in China and is tied to the social and economic roles of males in Chinese families, she writes. "Family lineage is traced through males, and sons are responsible for caring for their parents in their old age. When daughters marry, they leave their birth families to join their husbands' families ... Thus, regardless of their acceptance of the state's control of population growth, most Chinese citizens want at least one son."

What concerns demographers is the unparalleled leap in China's current sex ratio at birth (SRB) - the number of boys born compared to the number of girls-a figure that has been rising steadily since 1980. According to census data recently released in China, the SRB is now 120 to 100, the highest ever recorded in human history (in average populations, the sex ratio is 105 to 100).

"Because ultrasounds are now widely available in China, a lot of people abort female fetuses," says Riley. "It's not that they're killed at birth necessarily, but before birth."

The lopsided sex ratio has recently led some researchers to speculate that China's growing male population poses a threat to internal stability, raising the likelihood of a military campaign.

"It is true that men and boys have more power than girls and women in China, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will take that situation and turn it into war."

"I've heard this argument and I think it's baloney," says Riley. "It's merely propagating this idea of China being the evil empire. It is true that men and boys have more power than girls and women in China, but that doesn't necessarily mean they will take that situation and turn it into war. China has a society that focuses its resources much more on community and family."

Riley's report also examines the effects of other demographic trends, such as later marriage, longer life expectancies, new family structures, and a growing elderly population - the latter of which is straining the social and financial fabric of families as fewer children struggle to care for elderly family members.

Riley is the author of "Demography in the Age of the Postmodern," Cambridge University Press, (August, 2003). To view her report on China's population, visit the Population Reference Bureau at:www.prb.org.

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