Chinas Missing Women

14 Mar

China is facing a demographic crisis of a huge gender imbalance. As the figure above shows currently there 3.8% gender gap which means currently there is a shocking 52 million more men than women (Brookes, 2013).

China Gender Gap  (Brookes, 2013).

China Gender Gap (Brookes, 2013).

Causes of this gender imbalance

World Bank (2012,pp.121) identify that this gender imbalance is driven by three main factors: son-preference, drop in fertility predominantly through the one child policy and widely available ultrasound.

One major influence on son-preference in China is cultural, Confucianism enforces the importance of patrilineality within Chinese society. Patrilineality is the importance of the male line with regard to inheritance; in China this is very rigid. (Gupta et al,2003) Whereby ancestry worship is very important but can only be truly and traditionally carried out by males thus importance of continuity of male line (Gupta et al,2003). Historically traditional practises such as female foot binding although no longer practised show imbedded cultural male superiority (Shu,2004).

In China, where the is limited social care in old age the responsibility of looking after elderly parents falls on the children. In terms of this investment, marriage means women become part of a different family economic unit therefore are more likely to after their husband’s parents rather than their own (Todaro & Smith,2006). This traditional Confucian view of family based care is challenged by modernisation leading to high level of urban migration thus making care of elderly logistically challenging (Coonan,2013)

This son preference has a regional dimension, with being strongest in towns and rural areas(Arnold & Zhaoxiang,1986).

The one-child policy was introduced in 1970s to reduce growing population pressures, where by couples in urban areas were only allowed to have one child. This indirectly emphasised son preference as a couple were only allowed one child, so prioritised having a boy. There was a rural variation to the law that couple were allowed two children if the first was a girl showing the institutionalised basis of son-preference is in china. Those couples who already have a girl are 4% less likely to be using contraception then if they have boy, thus willing to risk breach of urban one-child policy to have a boy. (Arnold and Zhaoxiang,1986). The was slightly relaxed in Decembers 2013 where if both parents where only child, they were permitted to have two children (BBC,2013)

Technological advances with sex-specific abortion have allowed a more sophisticated method to ensure the desired sex is born. In china due to the one-child policy abortions are readily available and sex-specific abortions in fact they are extremely common place (The Telegraph,2010). Sen (2003) highlighted these as being a very significant driver of China current skewed birth ratios.


Son preference along with the one-child policy has contributed to 10,000 of abandonment of babies each year, the majority girls or children with severe health problems. These babies only have a one in three chance of surviving. So despite abandonment being illegal the Chinese authorise are building at least two baby hatches in each province in 2014, which allow baby to be abandoned anonymously but into a safe environment were the baby can directly be retrieved (BBC,2014). In Guangzhou 80 children were received the first two weeks of opening the baby hatch (The China Post,2014)

The number of women actually missing due to sex bias in relative care post pre and post birth was first worked on by Sen (1990). He investigated worldwide health based discrimination of females. Comparing female to male ratio of births based on Sub-Saharan African value where little gender discrimination is present. Compared to the normal value of 95 girls born to 100 boys, china only had 86 females. Further developed by Klasen(1994) and Coale(1991) found worldwide, depending on point of comparison, 60-100 million women are “missing”. In 1990 the estimated missing women in China was between 49.98 and 30.42, thus having the worst missing women problem in the world (Klasen & Wink,2003). Recent works has shown that excess mortality of females after birth is declining work wide but the advances in technology have allowed sex specific abortion is creating a new challenge, most prominent in China (Sen,2003; Klasen & Wink,2003)

Morally these “Missing” women that have died as result of “unequal treatment in allocation of survival-related goods is among worse human catastrophes of the 20th century.” (Klasen & Wink,2003).


This gender composition means there is an uneven foundation of the Chinese economy. Although China is experiencing high levels of growth what is the point of development unless it encompasses the whole nation? “Any process of growth that fails to improve the welfare of the people experiencing the greatest hardship, have failed to accomplish one of the principle goals of development.” (Todaro & Smith,2006).

This gender imbalance of due to missing women has led to male surplus in china. In the Chinese culture marriage is seen as a universal life event, with high social stigma of being single (To,2013). The surplus of men creates the opportunity for women to “marry up”. But this has led to an inequality of marriage developing, in which of unmarried aged 28-49 old 94% are male and 97% of these haven’t completed high school, often resulting in being named “guang gun” meaning “bare branches”. (Hedketh, Lu and Xing,2011) In some cases this has led to villages of bachelors developing in poor rural areas such as the ‘bachelor village’ of Banzhushan in Hunan province. (Branigan,2011)

Implication of this on these men is their self-confidence is likely to be lowered and increased risk of psychology vulnerability. Although in china the majority of violent crimes are committed by young, unmarried, low status males there is no clear evidence if unmarried men are more likely to be crime perpetrators. (Hedketh, Lu and Xing,2011)

This surplus of unmarried men has had a role in play in the boom of the sex trade in china although many other factors at play (Hedketh, Lu and Xing,2011). Interestingly there has been a flip side to this with, women are being heavily pressurised into marriage due to this surplus meaning it should be very easy to wed. Leading to many single women often who have prioritized careers subject to stigma by being named “Sheng nu” meaning “left over women” (Kay,2013). In many public parks billboards can be seen where family are “advertising” their daughters attributes to avoid them being left over (To,2013).

Overall despite having worrying human rights concerns, and major social implication Chinese society. Globally at a time where china is a growing superpower it should also be of grave concern than a country of such global importance has these imbedded and fundamental gender discriminatory views.

Words: 1,097


Arnold, F., Zhaoxiang, L. (1986) Sex preference, fertility and family planning in China. Population and Development Review, 12(2) 221-46

BBC (2013) China formally eases one-child policy. BBC News: China, 28 Dec. Available from [Accessed 09 March 2014]

BBC (2014) China expands abandoned baby hatch scheme. BBC News, 16 Feb. Available from [Accessed 09 March 2014]

Branigan, T. (2011) China’s village of the bachelors: no wives in sight in remote settlement. The Guardian, 2 Sept. Available at [Accessed 13 March 2014]

Brooks, R. (2013) China’s biggest problem? Too many men. CNN, 5 Mar. Available from [Accessed 9 March 2014]

Coale, A. (1991) Excess Female Mortality and the Balance of the Sexes in the Population: An Estimate of the Number of “Missing Females” Population and Development Review 17 (3) pp. 517-523

Coonan, C. (2013) China law forces adult children to visit and care for their elderly parents. The Independent, 1 July. Available from [Accessed 13 March 2014]

Gupta, M., Zhenghua, J., Bohua, L., Zhenming, X., Chung, W. and Hwa-Ok, B.(2003) Why is Son preference so persistent in East and South Asia? A cross-country study of China, India and the Republic of Korea. The Journal of Development Studies, 40(2) pp. 153-187

Hesketh, T., Lu L., Xing, Z. (2011) The consequences of son preference and sex-selective abortion in China and other Asian countries. CMAJ, 183(12) pp.1374-1377

Kay, M (2013) China’s ‘Leftover women’, unmarried at 27, BBC NEWS: MAGAZINE. 21 Feb. Available from [Accessed 13 March 2014]

Klasen, S.; Wink, C. (2003) “Missing Women”: Revisiting the Debate, Feminist Economics, 9 (2), Pages 263-299.

Klasen, S. (1994) “Missing Women” Reconsidered, World Development, 22 (7), Pages 1061-1071

Sen, A. (2003) Missing women – revisited, BMJ, 327 (1297)

Sen, A. (1990) More Than 100 Million Women are Missing, BMJ , 304(6827) p.597-588

Shu, X. (2004) Education and Gender Egalitarianism: The Case of China. Sociology of Education, 77:4 pp.311-336

The China Post (2014) China to build safe havens for abandoned babies. Available from
[Accessed 09 March 2014]

The Telegraph (2010) Chinese gender imbalance will leave millions of men without wives. The Telegraph, 11 Jan. Available from [Accessed 09 March 2014]

To, Sandy (2013) Understanding Sheng Nu (“Leftover Women”): The Phenomenon of Late Marriage among Chinese Professional Women. Symbolic Interaction 36:1pp.1-20

Todaro, M., Smith, S. (2006) Economic Development 9th Edition Harlow:Pearsons

World Bank (2012) World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development. Washington DC


One Response to “Chinas Missing Women”

  1. kmp1g13 March 17, 2014 at 2:13 am #

    The preference of boys in China has become an increasingly worrying issue due to gender imbalance which is why China made it illegal to find out the sex of the baby before it is born. This has caused many illegal underground fetal clinics which offer ultrasound services and cheap abortions by unlicensed doctors.

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