Thursday, December 3, 2009

China's Missing Girls

The lecture I saw at the University of Kansas' Confucius Institute - "Out of the Shadows: Family Planning and Identifying the 'Missing Girls' in Rural China" - was very good. The presenter, Dr. John Kennedy from KU, has done most of his work in rural Shaanxi Province (Xi'an's Province). So that made the talk even more interesting for me.

I'll highlight some of the main points he had last night.

- The 2000 census published in the People's Daily said that there are 116.86 males born for every 100 females. The number is much higher in rural parts of the country though. He had a rate of 123 boys for every 100 girls in Shaanxi Province.

- The ideal number of children for a Chinese farmer is two boys and one girl. This number will allow the family name (姓) to live on and also give the family plenty of resources for a successful family farm.

- Young men are needed to take care of elderly parents. There is no retirement in China's countryside. Old people basically work until they die. If a family doesn't have a son, the daughters will be married off and nobody will be there to take of the parents in their final years.

- Kennedy talked about visiting "bare sticks" villages. "Bare sticks" (光棍儿) are men who cannot find a wife. There are a lot of factors that go into a man being a "bare stick" - ie. being too poor to be an attractive candidate for a woman - but one of the main reasons there are so many is that there simply aren't that many women in villages. He described "bare sticks villages" as being 100% male villages where men work day after day at a factory or on farms with no wife or family. And, of course, no hope for things to get better.

- The farmers and villagers, particularly women, from the countryside who sell fruit and vegetables in cities were discussed. I liked this section because I vividly remember the women on the streets near my apartment selling fruits and vegetables. Dr. Kennedy explained that those women usually travel into the city three or four days at a time, sell their produce to city folk, head back to their family's farm with money, and then do the whole thing again a couple days later.

- Dr. Kennedy, in his time in northern Shaanxi, came across a family with five children. After getting to know the father and having some baijiu with him, the father told him that of his five kids, only two are "registered." The other three 不存在 - don't exist.

Dr. Kennedy's main point was this: There are a lot more unregistered girls living in rural China than the official numbers of the media says there are. He gave three reasons for the out-of-whack sex ratio:
1. Abortion
2. Infanticide
3. Unregistered girls
Whereas the western media and even a lot of academics think one and two are the main culprits, he thinks that the unregistered girls situation is not well-understood and, thus, under-reported.

There are, in fact, lots of reasons for families to keep girls. No family wants to kill babies. Women can be of use around the farm and aren't simply "another mouth to feed." And ultrasounds (which are illegal) and abortions are often too costly for farmers to have.

There are also reasons for local cadres (party officials) to turn their blind eye to unregistered girls. The main things that cadres are responsible for are as follows:
1. Social stability
2. Economic development
3. Birth rate kept down
As long as the local villagers are happy and the cadre can keep his numbers down, then harmony should be achieved (and promotions for the cadre should be had).

There are a lot of questions/issues that go hand-in-hand with the issue of unregistered girls: What do they do when they're adults? How can they become legitimate? Education? He believes that until the phenomenon of unregistered girls is better addressed, these issues will continue to be a problem.

It's important to try to understand the issues that exist in China's country side. As great as it was talking with people like Zachary Karabell and Robert Compton, they, admittedly, don't know a whole lot about rural China. Their experience in China is in the cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen where economic growth is taking place. Seeing that China is such an agrarian country and that more than half of its population is still farmers, learning more about China's countryside is necessary for having a deeper understanding of China.


Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. I wish we had a CI here in Vegas. We've talked before about the problems that the 'have a son retirement plan' brings.

China could really alleviate a lot of this problem with having a 'one son policy'. Have as many girls as you want, but just one son. Maybe for just a generation until numbers get more in line. But it is comforting to known that there are a lot of unregistered girls so its not as bad as we may have thought, however, hearing about those bare sticks, it still sounds bad.

Mark said...

Being unregistered is a huge challenge. Those girls are facing an uphill battle not officially "existing." But you're definitely right, better than the alternatives.

When I told Qian about the talk (she didn't go), she was quick to point out that the "bare sticks" guys aren't the result of the one-child policy. Seeing that those guys are mostly in their 30s and 40s and that the one-child policy was implemented in 1980, that makes sense.

She said that the bare sticks are mostly a result of thirty-something year old men being too poor and destitute to even be married. They simply offer nothing that a woman, even a poor rural woman, needs.

The one-child policy is going to make things worse in this regard going forward. But we're just beginning to see the results of the one-child policy generation.

Hearing about the bare sticks is painful. Think about how horrible life must be for those guys.