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  • Blonde in Beijing

The Transformation of China's Daughters: The “Two Child Policy,” Part 3

All over China, you see them. They are the apples of their fathers’ eyes. When they are children, their fathers fight for them to attend the best possible public school (or rather, jump through a series of hoops in risky political maneuvers.) After school, they are transported to their lessons – piano, English, tennis, swimming, ballet, martial arts, and robotics. When they get out of college, their fathers call up all of his friends to get her the best possible job out of his professional network. When they begin their careers, they act like nothing can stop them, confident that the decades of their parents’ investment will doubtlessly pay off. They are China’s daughters.


I have many personal experiences with these daughters. One of my acquaintances is a high-ranking leader in a company and to get to his office, you must first walk through a hallway full of paintings that his daughter did when she was five years old. I remember being in an elevator with my friend and her father, a high-ranking official outside of Beijing. She doted on him, playing with his ears, and giving him a big bear hug – with the innocence of a girl twenty years her junior. Her father just stood there and smiled.


I am always a bit amazed when I think about how much the role of women in China has changed since the early 20th century, when women's feet were still being bound in the Qing Dynasty. (This isn’t too far off in history - a friend of mine remembers meeting his great-grandmother as a boy and was shocked at how her bound feet looked.) After living here several months, I began to wonder if an unintentional consequence of China’s “one child policy” was the empowerment of women.


To try to gain insights into this issue, we must start at the beginning: The trend of how low fertility affects daughters was pioneered by Vanessa L. Fong, who realized that there was a dearth of literature on the subject, as most research focused on how low fertility affects mothers. In order to understand this trend in China, it is first important to recognize the situation that has manifested itself with a massively skewed male to female sex ratio at birth, which is estimated to render 30 million Chinese men without wives by the year 2020. This discrepancy, which is thought to be based predominantly in ancient Chinese Confucian thought, which views men as the primary caregivers for parents in old age instead of daughters, has significant consequences for how parents engage with their daughters. In fact, many urban women have been empowered through this skewed sex ratio at birth and are provided with a level of socioeconomic mobility which is impossible for many males to achieve.


According to the United Nations, China’s sex ratio at birth reached 120 in 2005-2010. This figure means that for every 100 females born in China, there were 120 males born. The world average also is skewed in the favor of men, with an estimated sex ratio at birth of 107 as the world average. A large reason for this gender imbalance has been thought to be based on the strong legacy of Confucianism, in which males are expected to take care of their parents in their old age, while women are expected to marry and take care of their in-laws. This is typically viewed as the sole reason, as many other Confucian-based societies, including Taiwan and South Korea, are faced with similarly high sex ratios at birth. Filial piety is a very strong tradition that exists even within modern China. The pressure that only children feel to provide for their parents has been particularly exacerbated in recent years by China’s lack of a modernized pension system. The preference for sons, particularly among rural workers who have less protection of pension plans than urban workers, is viewed as an economic necessity in their old ages.


In order to discuss the sex ratio at birth in an educated way, it is first important to understand how and when we start noticing this ratio increasing, shortly after the “one child policy.” There is no doubt that there is a correlation between the adoption of strict demographic policies in China and the rise of the sex ratio. However, drawing a direct causation may be premature. In the 2012 paper, “China’s Gender Imbalance and its Economic Performance” by Jane Golley and Rod Tyers, data was compiled that showed that the gender imbalance actually was relatively normal in areas where the “one child policy” was strictly implemented. “China has implemented one-child policies, 1.5 child policies, two-child policies and three child policies in different parts of the country, giving rise to SRB [sex ratio at birth] levels of 112, 125, 109 and 198, respectively.” This data shows that the gender ratio tension was exacerbated predominantly due to the “one and a half child policy.”


The history of this "one and a half child policy" was based in two realities: firstly, in the countryside, there was a strong preference for sons over daughters; and secondly, it was also difficult to implement the “one child policy” in rural areas in comparison to urban areas. Recognizing the challenges at hand, in 1984 (merely four years after the “one child policy” was enacted), the government gave permission for certain couples to have a second child. Included in this second child allotment were rural couples whose first child was female. The ratio became skewed because, due to traditional rural values, there was a high pressure for the couple’s second child to be male.


Simultaneously, China was growing economically under the economic reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era. As a part of this, medical care was increased and medical technology became more highly available. The 1980s marks the decade in which ultrasound technology became accessible to a wide segment of the population. Subsequently, those couples with a high pressure to have male offspring would often engage in sex-selective abortions. It is difficult to say if the “one child policy,” “the one and a half child policy,” the vast adoption of ultrasound technology, or a combination of these factors is the most important component which led to a high sex ratio at birth. Regardless, the Chinese government has viewed sex selective abortions as the mechanism by which this is possible. In 2012, Wang Xia, the head of China’s National Population and Family Planning Convention, announced the problem of ultrasound technology leading to sex selective abortions and pledged that the government would take stricter measures against doctors who provide the sex of the fetus to parents before birth. Sex determination by ultrasound has been illegal in China since the 1990s, but has not been widely prosecuted.


Realizing the need to raise women’s status within Chinese society, former President Hu Jintao established a gender equality campaign called “Care for the Girls” in order to counteract the traditional beliefs that women were not worth as much as men. The program was first piloted in places were the sex ratio at birth was particularly skewed. The campaign was geared mostly toward rural families, which show a preference for sons over daughters. The campaign includes education as well as subsidies for families with daughters. In Wuwei County in Anhui Province, families with one or two daughters are eligible for 30,000 yuan in subsidies.


However, women’s status has been raised through this high sex ratio at birth naturally and without government intervention. Due to the skewed gender ratio, the institution of marriage has drastically changed. Men have to do a great deal to distinguish themselves inside the marriage market. Many women are utilizing the gender discrepancy as a mechanism to practice hypergamy, or marrying up from their original socioeconomic status.

In the current marriage market, men are expected to provide marital housing. In some areas of China, men are even expected to pay bride prices to his fiancée or her family. This expectation means that a man and his parents must save up to buy housing in order to ensure his chances of success in attracting a wife. While this may seem anecdotal, the economic impact of the savings of sons’ families demonstrates that the newly-found power of females in the marriage market cannot be underestimated. Studies by scholars Wei and Zhang have shown that “the rise in China’s SRB [sex ratio at birth] ratio explains half of the increase in Chinese household savings as a share of disposable income (from 16 per cent in 1990 to 30 per cent in 2007.)” While we can focus on the sheer social or economic impact of the changing characteristic of the marriage market in China, due to the high sex ratio at birth, it is also important to realize the opportunity costs for sons’ families. In particular, sons’ families acquisition of accommodations and assets represents significant financial investments, which could have been spent in other types of investments, such as education.


The families of daughters, on the other hand, are faced with many less constraints in preparing their daughters for the marriage market. As noted by Vanessa Fong in her breakthrough 2002 paper, “China’s One Child Policy and the Empowerment of Urban Daughters:” “Unlike son’s’ parents, daughters’ parents can invest all their savings in their daughters’ education, rather than saving part of it for the purchase of marital housing. The need to purchase housing to attract a spouse is thus a disadvantage for sons and their parents.” By allowing the parents of women to invest in education and self-improvement, women subsequently develop characteristics that would make them more likely to marry someone of a higher socioeconomic status. This practice of marrying up, also called hypergamy, means that Chinese women have more socioeconomic options in life than men. Aside from finding a marriage partner from a higher background, this investment in education also allows women to achieve higher in both the education and professional spheres, as noted by the figure above. This provides women with the ability to assume themselves providing the responsibilities associated with filial piety and care for their parents in their old ages.


Subsequently, a cycle of women’s empowerment is created. Throughout Chinese history, parents have not found incentive mechanisms to invest in their daughters. With China’s “one child policy” with its lack of competition to compete with brothers, as well as a favorable marriage market which allows women to marry up, females received high levels of parental investments. These women typically achieve in education and “higher education levels have provided a means for women to work in non-traditional jobs outside of the home. Women’s earnings can then be focused not only on their own offspring, but for their own parents as well.” This act of filial piety of a woman taking responsibility for her parents is a new concept within traditional Confucian thought.


However, in Yipei Zhu’s sociological research as published in “One Child Policy and Women’s Challenging Social Situation in China,” it is clear that singleton females and females with siblings have very different perspectives when it comes to filial piety. The women with siblings had more independence and less pressure in regard to filial piety with their parents. Women with no siblings recognize that they are the sole providers for their parents and take on the responsibility of providing for them. The more women provide for their parents, the more women break the traditional gender roles assigned to them by their Confucian upbringing.


As the “two child policy” takes off, two potential results that could affect the continued empowerment of women are: firstly, the sex ratio at birth balances and women are no longer able to receive the education and its subsequent social mobility through the marriage market; and secondly, as parents have more than one children, women will not actively seek to fulfill the duties associated with filial piety, thereby acting in accordance with preset gender stereotypes from China’s Confucian heritage.