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Missing Women, Savings, One-child Policy, Lesbians: Demography and Gender in China

July 13, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

In 1991 Amartya Sen drew attention to a problem that was until then neglected: the ratio of women to men was unnaturally low in some countries (as low as 0.94 in West Africa and China). Assuming that women and men receive the same care in terms of health, nutrition, and medicine, the formers are bound to live longer than the latter. Mother nature has equipped women with a better capacity to resist diseases than men and therefore one would expect a high women to men ratio. The fact that this does not happen is symptomatic of a complex mix of economic, social, and cultural factors which discriminate and subordinate women vis-à-vis men. If Sen accounted for the higher female mortality (which leads to a low female to male ratio) in term of a combination of low female employment outside the household, low female literacy, and strong cultural preferences for sons, the jury is still out to determine the forces behind the low ratio. For example, journalist Ross Douthat argues that the increase in selective abortion has played a crucial role. Citing a new study, he argues that what paradoxically led to this “gendercide” is the increasing empowerment of women who use the available options to select the sex of their child and opt for male offspring insofar as it brings a higher social status. This explanation is both controversial and problematic (as Austin explains on his blog Democracy in America the gendercide might be a symptom of increased female empowerment as much as of female discrimination) and epitomizes the complexity of forces behind the female to male ratio.

All these explanations look at one direction of causality i.e. the impact of social, economic, and cultural forces on demographic phenomena. Two articles that I recently read about China explore the other side of causality i.e. the impact of demographic policies and trends on economic behaviors and social and cultural norms.

The first article concerns the economic consequences of the relatively low number of women vis-à-vis men in China. In China there are about 105 men for 100 girls. This means that around 1 man out of five of the current generation will have difficulties in getting married. To make their sons more “desirable” households tend to save more money. The research of professor Shang-Ji Wei shows that not only households with a only son save more compared to households with only daughter but also that only-son-households in regions with a low female to male ratio save more than similar household in regions where the ratio is higher. In sum, a demographic factor (which is shaped by a mix of other forces) can exercise a great impact on economic dynamics, such as the decision to save.

The second article ” Room to Live and Love in China’s Cities” concerns the social consequences of the one-child policy on a specific sexual minority in China: lesbians. A patriarchal society such as China which traditionally overlooks women can offer some space of freedoms in terms of sexuality. The pressure on men to carry on the family line and to produce offspring makes it much more difficult to be a gay man than being a gay woman. However, this “benevolent” ignorance is offset by a demographic factor: around 140 only children produced by China’s one-child policy. So if you happen to be lesbian and only daughter there will be a big pressure to carry on the family line. Plus with less women around, the familial pressure to marry can in some cases be high for women too. Hence, demographic trends are reshaping the role and the importance of the women to ensure the reproduction of the society. And this works to the disadvantage of sexual minorities who are not allowed to deviate from the “norm”.

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