China's one-child policy, likely overblown, now gone
It's common for media and academics to cite the statistic that China's one-child policy has led to anywhere from 30 million to 60 million "missing girls", creating a gender gap in the world's most populated nation.
A University of Kansas researcher has found those numbers are likely overblown, and that a large number of girls aren't missing at all. More likely, local administrative error had more to do with low birth registry in China.
"People think 30 million girls are missing from China's population. That's the population of California — and they think they're just gone. Most people are using a demographic explanation to say that abortion or infanticide are the reasons they don't show up in the census, and that they don't exist. But we find there is a political explanation."
John James Kennedy PhD, Professor, Director of the Center for Global and International Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Kansa; whose research focuses on social policy and change in China.
The 2010 Chinese census found the sex ratio at birth was 118 males for every 100 females. Globally the average is about 105 males to every 100 females. In 2015, Chinese state media announced all couples would be allowed to have two children, signaling the end of the controversial 35-year-old policy.
Now scholars and policymakers are examining how the ban could have lasting social influence in China on everything from elder care to political stability.
John Kennedy and co-author Shi Yaojiang, of Shaanxi Normal University in China, have analyzed statistics and found a combination of late registration and unreported births explain a larger portion of the "missing girls" than previously reported by Chinese statisticians. Their findings are published this month in the journal China Quarterly.
Researchers believe local government officials informally worked with farmers and acknowledged that they couldn't fully enforce the one-child policy.
Instead they made tactit agreements to allow families to have extra children in exchange for social stability in their communities.
The cadres, or local governments, would then under-report "out of plan" births that ultimately influenced the national population statistics.
"There is no coordination between cadres saying 'we are all in agreement,'" Kennedy added. "Actually it's just very local. The people who are implementing these policies work for the government in a sense. They are officials, but they are also villagers, and they have to live in the village where they are implanting policies."
Kennedy and his co-researchers began their work in 1996 when they interviewed a villager in the northern Shaanxi province to discover he had two daughters and a son. The farmer referred to the middle daughter as "the non-existent one." Since the mid 1980s, villagers can legally have a second child if the firstborn is a girl.
"We noticed that qualitatively when we interviewed villagers and higher and lower level officials — everybody had a tacit understanding that yes, millions of girls and some boys, too, were allowed to be unregistered.Then these children appear in the population statistics as older groups of junior high school age and marriage age."
John James Kennedy PhD
To supplement the "quality" data, researchers then examined Chinese population data by groups, comparing number of children born in 1990 with the number of 20-year-old Chinese men and women in 2010. They discovered 4 million additional people. Of those, approximately 1 million more were women than men.
"If we look over a period of 25 years, it's possible there are about 25 million women in the statistics that weren't recorded at birth. If 30 million women are truly missing, there are going to be more males than females of marriageable age. As men start looking for wives — nothing is more socially unstable than alot of testosterone with nowhere to go."
John James Kennedy PhD
Much media coverage has focused on potential social problems stemming from a "marriage squeeze" with men as a group sizably outnumbering women. However, the findings of un-reported births at the local level seem to explain why the marriage squeeze may not be as pronounced as thought.
Overall, the study provides more insight into how local villages and cadres operate. Diplomatically, people have viewed the Chinese negatively thinking villagers would willing kill their daughters to comply with law, but Kennedy believes the explanation of un-reported births makes more sense.
The Chinese government has since moved to end its one-child policy (2015), so some felt they might view the research findings in a positive light. But, Kennedy explains, for about 15 years the results were too politically sensitive to publish, especially for his co-researchers still living in China.
In 2010, according to the sixth Chinese census, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) was 118 males for every 100 females. The global SRB average is about 105. Thus, the gap between 118 and 105 is made up of “missing girls.” Scholars present three main explanations for the skewed SRB statistic: sex-selective abortion, infanticide and delayed or late registration. Most studies take a demographic and cultural approach to explain the high SRB. However, we believe the story of the “missing girls” is also an administrative one and adopt the street-level bureaucrat theory of policy implementation to explain the pervasiveness of late registration in rural China. We use descriptive statistics derived from the 1990, 2000 and 2010 census data to identify the “missing girls.” We believe the combination of late registration and unreported births may point to a larger proportion of “missing girls” than previously reported from the SRB statistic.
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