Thank Heaven for Little Girls by mattsteinglass
January 24, 2007, 11:31 am
Filed under: China

Beth Nonte Russell, the adoptive mother of two Chinese-born children, worries in today’s NY Times that rising Chinese restrictions on adoption may stem from a nationalistic desire to conceal the number of girls in Chinese orphanages. (The problem, familiar by  now to most, is that the one-child policy leads Chinese parents to abort girl fetuses so they can try again for a boy – an imperative in a patrilineal, family-oriented Confucian society. This has led to a boy-to-girl ratio in the current cohort estimated at 117 to 100.) Russell’s column contains a number of weird misunderstandings which are hard to explain without assuming some type of anxiety towards China’s rise on her part.

Let’s start with some very, very bad math. Russell says Chinese census researchers in 2005 concluded there will be about 60 million “missing” girls in the population by the end of the decade. Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, estimates that about 5 million female fetuses and 2 million male fetuses are aborted in China each year. Russell multiplies 5 million by 10 (for “end of the decade”), gets 50 million, and asks “where are the other 10 million girls? If even 10 percent end up in orphanages… well, you do the math.” I think we’d better; Russell’s math skills here do not meet 7th grade standards.

First off, the difference between girl and boy abortion rates cited here, obviously, is 3 million, not 5 million, which would produce a gap of 30 million, not 50 million, over 10 years. Second, the phrasing of the Chinese census figure is ambiguous; it’s not clear whether they cited a gender gap of 60 million babies over the course of the decade 2000-2010, a gender gap of 60 million babies from the moment of the study through 2010, or what, exactly. Third, the estimate produced by Planned Parenthood is inexact, and it would be ludicrous to conclude that a difference of 10 million from the Chinese census figures (also inexact) implies that there really are 10 million girl fetuses which have disappeared somewhere.

Fourth, and most important in terms of mathematical illiteracy, none of the 60 million “missing” girls in the Chinese census calculations can “end up in orphanages”, since if they were in orphanages, they would not be missing. The Chinese census calculations refer to girl fetuses which were never born. It seems a safe bet to assume that any girl babies in Chinese orphanages were born at some point.

Finally, we get to the most important error of logic in Russell’s piece: her attack on the one-child policy. Russell says the policy must be scrapped if China is ever to eliminate the disturbing surplus of abandoned girls which, she thinks, it finds so embarrassing that it’s restricting foreign adoptions to conceal the problem. But Chinese parents don’t abort girl babies because they’re only allowed one child; they abort them because they’re only allowed one child AND TRADITIONAL CHINESE CULTURE CONSIDERS MALES MORE VALUABLE THAN FEMALES. There are two ways to alter the problem of Chinese female abortions and numerical gender imbalances. One would be to remove the one-child policy, which would entail tremendous social, economic and environmental costs for China. The other would be to encourage Chinese culture to value women as highly as it values men.

The latter policy is far more realistic than the former. Chinese attitudes towards the economic and social roles of women are already in a state of fervid transformation. Women are assuming senior roles in business, politics, academia, and the media – just as they have in every other country in the world as it develops. Furthermore, the very rarity of girls in the current cohort of Chinese kids is forcing Chinese to reevaluate their attitudes. Desperate Chinese men are now paying large dowries to import brides. The notion that Chinese male chauvinism is fixed and unchanging is a symptom of the same kind of Western anti-Chinese condescension that seems unable to cope with the rise of China as a world power.

And anyone who thinks that encouraging average Chinese in their attitude shift on gender will take longer than intervening, as foreigners, to push the Chinese Communist Party to scrap a longstanding and largely successful feature of its domestic policy…does not have much expertise on this question.


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