An Immodest Proposal on China’s Gender Imbalance

According to an article published two years ago in the Guardian, there were then over 32 million more men than women in China. The sex imbalance here is the largest in the world and is the worst among under-sixes.

Although gender testing ultrasounds before birth are illegal, the gender imbalance shows that the practice has continued, along with sex-selective abortion. So I sometimes ask my friends and acquaintances about the preference for sons.

I guessed that it was because men might still earn more money on average and would be better prepared to support their parents. Considering the one-child policy, it would be economically rational to choose a son.

When I ask the question, however, that’s not what people tell me. The answer that pops up the most often is a very simple one: “Tradition.”

One of my students, a lawyer, gave me that answer and explained what it meant to her. “At the Spring Festival,” she told me, “I go to my husband’s parents’ home. I don’t go to visit my own parents. And when my husband’s parents grow old, we will support them.”

The vast majority of Han Chinese society has, historically, been patrilocal – a new wife joins her husband’s family. Raising a daughter, if looked at from a financial perspective, was like an investment that would never grant you returns, since her labour and children would ultimately belong to her husband. Daughters change families, sons stay. Based on what my student tells me, this basic belief persists.

My students, just today, told me that when a couple marries, the groom generally buys the new house or apartment in which they will live – a sign of his and his family’s strong investment in the marriage.

Looked at from this perspective, a sex imbalance does not reflect differing career prospects but the way that marriage distributes wealth differentially between the sexes.

If husbands and wives were equal financial contributors to their marriages, and supported each set of parents equally, I bet that it would have a significant effect on China’s sex imbalance.


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