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Friday, February 15, 2008

China's Gender Imbalance

The U.S. State Department recently released some of its 1973 papers documenting talks between Chairman Mao Zedong and then-U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. These official talks covered a wide range of issues, from the Soviet threat to U.S. economic involvement with Taiwan. They also provided a glimpse into Chairman Mao's view of women. Countless papers are covering this story, which you can read on-line at BBC News and also the Associated Press.

I find this article interesting for so many reasons. On a purely academic level, I noted that the transcripts themselves date back over thirty years. Chairman Mao's comments show that the Chinese leadership acknowledged their growing population problem, although who knew if - at that time - they realized the extent of the problem. One would assume so, given the great famine of 1958-1961, caused primarily by the agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward, but also exacerbated by China's ever-growing population.

Also, Mao's statements from 1973 highlight the strong cultural preference for boys in China's recent past, even among the top levels of Chinese society. This gender preference still exists among many Chinese, especially those who live in the more rural areas, including the Tongginator's native county of Tonggu within Jiangxi Province. To be fair, this past decade the Chinese government made great strides in discouraging the traditional societal preference for boys, especially among its younger, urban population. They've employed many propaganda methods, including billboards posted in rural areas that encourage families to parent their girls, to be proud of their daughters.

The Chinese have made progress, but the preference for boys still exists. For every 100 girls born in China, there are 118 boys. The U.N. recommends a gender ratio of no more than 103 to 107 male births per 100 female births. No one knows for sure whether this disparity within China occurs due to illegal sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, or perhaps a generation of "hidden girls" exists: girls who do live with their families or others within the local community, but are undocumented, their existence hidden from the government due to China's population control policies. This, if true, leads to its own unique set of problems. "Hidden girls," who do not possess hukou (a paperwork term), are ineligible to enroll in school or receive government medical care.

You can also see the strong cultural preference for boys when analyzing child abandonment within China. The vast majority of Chinese children found abandoned are female, as one can see just by perusing published finding advertisements found in provincial newspapers. These advertisements are the final government step taken prior to submitting a child's paperwork for domestic or international adoption. It provides the birth family one last chance to reclaim their child. Some boys do, on occasion, appear in the finding advertisements. Most of these boys have medical special needs, although a small, but growing number of these boys are considered non-special needs. Still, the vast majority of children listed are female. For example, within our personal (albeit very dated) experience, the Jiangxi Economic Daily published in late March 2004 shows over 125 finding advertisements, all female children found abandoned within the winter months of 2003-2004. There is not one male child listed among the 125+ finding ads.

I wonder how I will explain all of this to my daughter. I've read (and own) Kay Ann Johnson's book "Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son." It did help me resolve many things in my own mind. And yet ... there exist no easy answers. At some point the Tongginator will reach an age where she will wonder about the huge predominance of girls among the Chinese adoptee community. What will I say? What should I say?

What do you say?