China’s past is critical to understanding the role of women in China today. In Imperial China, women assumed a relatively subordinate position to men. Women did possess some power; within the family content, for example, they would often assume a role of leadership. However, this power did not generally extend beyond the home and familial affairs. In the period between the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the role of women in Chinese society began to change dramatically.
Although women are longer repressed by the immobilizing foot-binding tradition practiced for generations, they now experience different limitations and social pressures. Whilst communism pushed men and women to work together, China’s traditional Confucianism, which berates “strong women,” lingers. This ideological contradiction results in a society wherein female high-flyers experience difficulty finding partners and women face prejudice in higher education and the workplace. Consequently, financial constraints are common, and many women admit that financial incentives are often more important than personal compatibility when searching for a partner.
Why is the Role of Women in China Relevant?
In China, as in all societies today, the question of “the role of women” is debated across different social groups. Rapid economic development has had major implications for China’s population. Whereas there are increased opportunities for all, there continues to be a glass-ceiling for many.
The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report (2010) gave China a “Gender Equality Ranking” of 38, just below the US (37) and far above Brazil (80), another member of the “Big Four.” Nevertheless, women’s positions of leadership in employment can be graphed as a pyramid: the nearer to the top, the fewer women to be found. The Central Government recognized this disparity within the civil service sector, and, since 2008, it has actively encouraged local governments to employ more women in leadership positions. The unequal gender representation in the workplace, however, is symptomatic of diverse underlying issues.
Globalization and the economic development of China present increased opportunities along with increased competition. Characterized by over-population and a high percentage of educated citizens, China is a society wherein women lose out to their male counterparts. The one-child policy introduced in 1978 places huge pressures on young families, as the care for elder grandparents falls to one grandchild and his or her spouse. Because enterprises tend to favor male employees, child-rearing falls primarily to the women.
Today, the role of women in China differs across social boundaries. Although there are, in theory, endless opportunities, only some women can access them. There is no accepted role for women; some women are CEOs and government officials, whilst others opt for completely different lifestyles. Current affairs such as the scandal involving Bo Xilai’s wife and China’s first female astronauts are gaining much press, thereby drawing increased attention to the question of the role of women. The rapid development of China has shifted the issues faced by women, and many are now beginning to scrutinize their role within society, the economy and politics.
Gendercide in China
The term “gendercide” was coined by American feminist Mary Anne Warren.[i]
While some researchers have suggested that Hepatitis is responsible for the high sex ratio, this is not supported by the evidence. Looking at the 2000 census data, if a second child is a male it will arrive, on average, 4 months later than a second born female. This delay in birth indicates that there is human intervention, abortions or infanticide, taking place before the birth of a male second child.[ii]
In 2012, there were over 18 million more boys than girls under the age of 15 in China.[iii]
In 2012, the national government estimated that China has 40 million more males than females.[iv]
By 2020, the Chinese government estimates that there will be at least 30 million men of marriageable age that may be unable to find a spouse.[v]
In 2005, more than 1.1 million excess births of boys occurred.[vi]
According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “the gender imbalance has been growing wider year after year.”[vii]
The most normal sex ratios are seen where the One-Child Policy is most permissive.[viii] One example can be seen in Tibet, which has the most permissive family planning in China with no birth limitation policies for Tibetans residing within the Tibet Autonomous Region, and, as of the 2005 census, was the only Chinese province which still had a normal sex ratio at birth.[ix]
The One-Child Policy seems to be causally linked to the increased sex ratio in China. Mothers who face stricter restrictions and higher fines are more likely to have a son once they are facing possible punishment. One example is the birth rates of women who have had a single daughter. The sex ratio of children born after this first daughter changes based on the policy being enforced, with the mothers in the one child area being 3 percentage points more likely to have a son.[x]
China alone stands to have as many unmarried young men—“bare branches”, as they are known—as the entire population of young men in America. At present, there are 40 million American men under 20. In 2020, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that there will be 40 million more Chinese men than women in that same age group.[xi]
In 2005 (the most recent year for which this data is available), Chinese men were already having trouble finding brides, with 88% of all single Chinese between 35 and 39 being male. In this same age group, 99% of females were already married.[xii]
For reference, there are a total of 37.3 million people who live in California and 25.1 million who live in Texas.[xiii]
Dudley Poston, a Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University, estimates that if China’s sex ratio holds steady there will be a projected 55 million extra males by 2020. Unfortunately, even if it improved to almost natural levels by 2020 there will still be an excess of 51 million males.[xiv]
Approximately 40 to 50 million Chinese men will never marry, and an estimated 12 to 15 percent of Chinese men will be unable to find a mate within the next seven years.[xv]
By 2030, projections suggest that more than 25% of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married.[xvi]
The total U.S. population is just over 300 million. There are over 100 million “missing” girls in the world, of which about half would have been born in China.[xvii]
In fact, some experts estimate that if the gender ratio in Asia had stayed at the natural level (105:100) for the past few decades the continent would have 163 million more women.[xviii]
Sex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males.[xix]
An ultrasound, which can identify the gender of an unborn fetus, costs $12 in China.[xx]
Avraham Ebenstein, an economist, found that when making decisions about sex selection, Chinese families viewed a first-born son to have a worth of about 1.85 years of income, while the first-born girl held a value of only about 0.43 years of income.[xxi]
While ultrasound scans to identify the gender of the baby are illegal, the penalties are relatively light, creating numerous repeat offenders.[xxii]
Contrary to common thought, sex ratio at birth has a positive correlation with education, possibly because well-educated women choose (or are forced) to have less children, and therefore are will to have sex selective abortions earlier on than their rural counterparts. Another possibility is that better educated mothers have more access to, and ability to pay for, sex determination (ultrasounds).[xxiii]
In Suining city, people will pay ultrasound technicians up to $150 in bribes to determine the gender of their fetus, which is only one-tenth of the fine they would have to pay for having a child without a birth permit.[xxiv]
In-vitro fertilization for surrogate mothers was made illegal in 2001 due to the fact that it was utilized by couples who wanted to guarantee birth of a male. However, the treatment continues to appeal to parents unable to conceive or couples who wish to guarantee a boy outright. A reported 400-500 illegal surrogacy clinics operate in China.[xxv]
A recently-busted illegal clinic registered as a cosmetics company was providing in-vitro fertilization for $161,000 (1 million Chinese yuan) for a successful birth. If customers desired a guarantee that they would receive a boy, they paid an additional $32,186 (200,000 Chinese yuan).[xxvi]
Gendercide in China and other countries has far reaching consequences; the United Nations Development Programme is estimating that the global sex ratio at birth has risen from 105:100, in the period between 1975 and 1980, to 107:100 in the period between 2005 and 2010.[xxvii]
Sex Ratio vs. GDP per Capita: China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls) [xxviii]