Civil Liberties

10 Million Missing Chinese Girls?


In a New York Times op-ed piece, Beth Nonte Russell, author of a new book about adopting children from China, wonders where all the Chinese girls have gone:

According to a February 2005 report in The Weekend Standard, a Chinese business newspaper, demographers in China found a ratio of 117 boys per 100 girls under the age of 5 in the 2000 census. Thanks to China's one-child policy, put into effect in 1979 in order to curb population growth, and a strong cultural preference for male children, this gender gap could result in as many as 60 million "missing" girls from the population by the end of the decade, enough to alarm even Chinese officials.

Chinese officials are alarmed because 60 million missing girls means 60 million boys with no prospect of marrying and settling down when they get older, a recipe for dissent, unrest, and crime (phenomena the Chinese government tends to lump together). Russell, herself the mother of two adopted Chinese girls, notes that foreign adoption of abandoned babies accounts for only a small fraction of the 60 million girls who won't be there. In 2005 about 8,000 Chinese girls ended up in the U.S., the most common destination, and last year the number fell to about 6,500. Other countries may account for a few thousand more each year. Sex-selective abortions are a much bigger contributor to the gender gap:

According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (a term that takes on a whole new meaning when referring to China), there are about seven million abortions in China per year, 70 percent of which are estimated to be of females. That adds up to around five million per year, or 50 million by the end of the decade; so where are the other 10 million girls?

Actually, that adds up to only 2.8 million a year, the difference between the aborted boys and the aborted girls, so that's only 28 million over a decade. Russell suggests that many of the unaccounted-for girls stay in orphanages until adulthood, perhaps because they are deemed less adoptable than the ones Americans and other foreigners take home. That might help explain why adopted Chinese girls are, by and large, not only healthy but cute. Are there secret orphanages full of sickly, handicapped, and homely girls scattered through China?

Maybe, but it could also be that the estimate for sex-selective abortions, which are illegal in China, is not completely accurate. The "as many as 60 million" estimate for the girl shortage may be off as well. If so, perhaps the foreign demand for Chinese girls really is outstripping the supply, which is the reason the Chinese government gave when it recently announced it was tightening its criteria for adoptive parents.

Either way, Russell's policy prescription—scrap family size limits, in which case more girls would be born and fewer would be abandoned—is surely the right one. Whether or not it's enough to correct China's demographic imbalance, it is morally required.

This week, A.P. reports, the head of China's National Population and Family Planning Commission called the gender gap "a very serious challenge for China" but said the government would not change its population controls, including rules that generally allow urban couples no more than one child and rural couples no more than two. Instead it will rely on "education campaigns, punishments for sex-selective abortions and rewards—like retirement pensions—for parents who have girls."