Female Infanticide in China

Imagine if all the women in California and Texas vanished. That’s how many women are missing in China as a result of female infanticide. 37 million missing women (“Why Chinese Men…”).

We have long been familiar with the fact that many countries favor males over females; however, China exhibits an extreme case of this gender imbalance. In 1979, The People’s Republic of China introduced the infamous one-child policy, which permitted only one child per married couple and threatened violators with fines and severe consequences, including forced abortions and sterilizations (Fitzpatrick). A huge population boom occurred after under Mao Zedong who encouraged families to have as many children as possible to increase manpower, as part of his Great Leap Forward policy (Fitzpatrick). However, this already enormous and increasing population led to food shortages, resulting in the devastating famine of 1961 (Fitzpatrick). The reaction to this famine was the implementation of the one-child policy.

However, in this male-favored society, the one-child policy led to the dire consequence of a drastic increase in female infanticides. The Confucian saying, “重男轻女,” translates to “value the boy, disdain the female.” Though old, the saying is still relevant in Chinese society today, where males carry the ancestral line and families view them as the securers of economic and social stability. While China is becoming one of those most globalized, industrialized modern societies, it maintains certain millennia-entrenched cultural norms, traditions, and stigmas. Because China deeply values family and ancestral relations, the desire for sons is prominent, and therefore the one-child policy unintentionally caused families, especially in rural areas, to abort or kill female infants.

Sons represent an economic boon for the family due to their employability and higher wage earning potential even when they do the same work as women (Spurling). Traditionally employed at an early age on their family farms, sons provide essential economic benefits in agricultural communities.  Thus the effect of this economic boon is amplified in rural areas. Given Confucian values espousing that sons will look after their parents in old age and daughters will care for their husband’s parents, many families fear the potential lack of future economic and emotional benefit of raising an only daughter, as she will eventually marry into another household.

“A son was your pension,” the Guardian states in the article “China’s Great Gender Crisis.” (Branigan) To poorer families, a daughter is considered a burden. For them, she may be just another mouth to feed without hope for current or future financial contributions to the family, due to the conditions of China’s workplace and Confucian culture.

According to a paper about “China’s Infanticide Epidemic” from the University of Denver, the Chinese government claims that female infanticide only occurs in the “most ‘backward’ regions of the countryside which still subscribe to a feudalistic mentality,” when in reality the sex ratios in China indicate that the problem is not just specific to certain regions in China (Winter). The natural sex ratio of birth is 105 boys born for every 100 girls (Hvistendahl). However, the latest census demonstrates an alarming average of 120 boys born for every 100 girls in China’s one billion plus population—demonstrating an extreme imbalance resulting from deliberate manipulation. In some villages, such as Linchuan in the Jiangxi province, there are even 130 plus boys born for every 100 girls (Schorn). This drastic disparity between the natural sex ratio and the actual sex ratio in the world’s most populated country demonstrates how little many populations value women, even in industrialized societies. When China first introduced the one-child policy, couples could receive an ultrasound, which thereby informed them not only whether or not they were expecting, but also the sex of the child (Branigan).  This led to numerous sex-selective abortions. These approximately 37 million “missing” girls have also disappeared due to abandonment, human trafficking, and outright infanticide, condemning these female infants to harrowing fates.

Another unintended side effect of the gender imbalance is the millions and millions of Chinese men who will never start a family. In fact, there are now increasing costs to having sons, since women now have more choice regarding their marriage partners as there are significantly fewer females of marriageable age in China. According to Newsweek, men must compete by not only securing the best jobs but also by purchasing expensive living spaces to attract potential marital partners (Powell). In addition, research indicates that, with a large number of unmarried men, there have been spikes in sex trafficking and bride-buying (Henley). Additionally, with more men untethered to family life feeling increasingly alienated and unsatisfied, Chinese government leaders fear societal instability and increased crime.

The Chinese government has attempted to fix the gender imbalance through a series of new policies.  Zhao Baige, vice minister of the Family Planning Commission, explains that China has made receiving an ultrasound for sex-identification illegal. If physicians reveal the infant’s gender, they could lose their jobs (Schorn). The Chinese government has also offered subsidies to daughter-only families. Still, these policies are slow to change the attitudes and actions of the country’s citizens. Some Chinese couples still work to determine their child’s gender through black market transactions. Still, we should not abandon these laws altogether, since the crux of the issue lies in the values of the people, which may be changed by government actions.

The rampant nature of female infanticide has spurred the Chinese government to examine the status of women and women’s rights in China. New campaigns pushing ideas of Chinese women inheriting land, continuing the ancestral line, and starting their own businesses, have increased in number, in an effort for gender equality as a whole. With an increase in number of career women, higher incomes for female workers, and the sex ratio at birth falling slightly for two years running to just over 118 males in 2010 (Branigan), these campaigns may be contributing to a shifting attitude towards equality.

Female infanticide in China stems from a deeply ingrained preference for sons, and has increased dramatically in recent decades, specifically because of China’s one-child policy implemented in the late 1970s. As the consequences of female infanticide will unravel in the next few decades, the Chinese government may find additional methods to remedy them by focusing on gradual shifts in modern Chinese gender perspectives. However, this issue blatantly reveals the still-prevalent social stigmas against women, the stark gender inequality that lies beneath this rapidly developing world power, and the lengths we must go through to create change.


Branigan, Tania. “China’s Great Gender Crisis.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Nov. 2011, www.theguardian.com/world/2011/nov/02/chinas-great-gender-crisis.

“Ethics – Abortion: Female Infanticide.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/abortion/medical/infanticide_1.shtml.

Fitzpatrick, Laura. “China’s One-Child Policy.” Time, Time Inc., 27 July 2009, content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1912861,00.html.

Hvistendahl, Mara. “China’s New Birth Rule Can’t Restore Missing Women and Fix a Population.”Scientific American, 2 Nov. 2015, www.scientificamerican.com/article/china-s-new-birth-rule-can-t-restore-missing-women-and-fix-a-population/.

Powell, Bill. “Gender Imbalance: How China’s One-Child Law Backfired on Men.” Newsweek, 31 Mar. 2016, www.newsweek.com/2015/06/05/gender-imbalance-china-one-child-law-backfired-men-336435.html.

Schorn, Daniel. “China: Too Many Men.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 16 Apr. 2006, www.cbsnews.com/news/china-too-many-men/3/.

Spurling, Hilary. “China’s Brutal One-Child Policy Will Be Catastrophic for Us All.” The Spectator, 13 Jan. 2016, www.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/chinas-brutal-one-child-policy-will-be-catastrophic-for-us-all/.

Tasch, Barbara. “The Consequences of Violating China’s One-Child Policy Were Sometimes Horrific.”Business Insider, Business Insider, 30 Oct. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/what-happened-when-people-violated-the-one-child-policy-2015-10.

Wall, Winter. “China’s Infanticide Epidemic.” Human Rights and Human Welfare, vol. 9, pp. 1–9., doi:2009.

“Why Chinese Men Are the Most Single in the World: the Perils of Gender Imbalance in China.” ZME Science, 18 May 2016, www.zmescience.com/other/feature-post/china-gender-imbalance-243423/.

Zraick, Karen. “China Will Feel One-Child Policy’s Effects for Decades, Experts Say.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Oct. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/31/world/asia/china-will-feel-one-child-policys-effects-for-decades-experts-say.html?_r=0.