Saturday, October 28, 2006

China's "Boy Imbalance"

A shortened version of this essay was originally posted to A-P-C July 3, 2004, following the release of National Geographic's documentary, "Lost Girls of China".

Much has been written about the growing imbalance between male and female children in China. Official estimates show the surplus of males growing to 25 million by 2030. China has reacted to this problem by instituting several gender-biased programs such as the recent "Care for Girls" program.

But is this imbalance as serious as so many here in the West believe? And is it as serious as the Chinese Government would have its citizens believe? Before answering these questions, let's first look at how the Western media is presenting this problem. I take as a case-study Lisa Ling's "National Geographic Explorer" segment on China and its adoption program, entitled "Lost Girls of China".

Lisa spends considerable energy furthering the misconception regarding China's male "imbalance". Granted, much has been written in the West about the imbalance and its implications for China, but several key things have not been considered in the discussion. Having traveled and lived in China a large percentage of my time over the last six years, I offer you additional facets of this problem.

Lisa spends a little time on the apparent kidnapping of women for sale as "wives" to men "unable to find wives", ostensibly due to a shortage of women due to the one-child policy. In reality, the kidnapping problem has absolutely nothing to do with the one-child policy, a surplus of males, or any other demographic imbalance. It has everything to do with economics: the men who are paying for kidnapped wives are in China's lowest economic segment. Women in China, just like their counter-parts in the West, seek to improve their economic status through marriage. A man with no job, no money, and no future (a key driver in women seeking marriage) will find it very difficult to find a woman willing to marry. Sometimes (and admittedly it is very infrequent) these economically disadvantaged men will act illegally and kidnap a woman to act as his wife. Although this occurs infrequently, it has nothing to do with an imbalance between men and women in China. It is important to remember that prior to the imposition of the one-child policy in 1980, the ratio of men to women was about equal. Thus, the first "children" of the policy are just now reaching the age where they are marrying and having children themselves. In a country the size of China's, it is simply not possible for the population to have shifted so dramatically so quickly that wives are already scarce. In another two decades the imbalance is projected to be 25 million men, or only about 1.6 percent of the entire population. With China's divorce rate at 21% and rising, this small surplus should have no problem finding marriageable partners among the singles and the nearly two million females joining China's divorced population each year.

Lisa also interviews school kids and asks them if there are more boys and girls in their school. Again, this is a very imperfect indicator, since China does not have a "free" public education program. Each parent must pay fees for their children in school (a powerful incentive to obey the one-child policy), and many families, especially in the poorest areas of China, are not able to afford to send their children to school. In this case, there is a preference to males, since it is logically assumed that boys will be able to utilize an education more than girls. Many girls are thus absent from the schools.

Additionally, in the upper "optional" grades after ninth grade, many of the girls drop out to look for work. This was borne out in an interview I had with the high school daughter of a Jiangxi orphanage director. I asked her if there were more boys than girls in her school. She replied that in the lower grades there had been more girls than boys, but now there were fewer girls because so many had left to seek work in the city.

For my part, I have surveyed scores of elementary aged classes, and never seen an imbalance. Neveretheless, I recognize that classroom surveys are a very faulty indicator of population ratios.

So, what is really going on here? Does China have a population imbalance or not? In order for an imbalance to develop, female children would need to be removed from the population. This can be done in two ways: prenatally, or post-natally. The most likely means of removing unborn girls from the population is through abortion. The problem with this solution, however, is that few doctors will disclose the sex of a child to a couple. Lisa shows this in her piece. I have interviewed scores of young couples with newborn children, and not a single couple was able to learn the sex of their child before it was born. The penalties involved for violating this law are severe, including loss of one's profession, fines and jail. Perhaps in cases of close personal relationships would the doctor violate this law, but certainly not enough to allow for the abortion of the millions of girls it would take to swing the balance significantly. That leaves post-natal elimination of girls.

In my experience with the Chinese people, there is one thing that is readily apparent across all spectrums of Chinese society: they love children. Again, I see no evidence (newspaper reports, criminal prosecutions, etc.) that indicates that millions of young girls are being killed each year. There are no bodies, I see no arrests, etc. Where are all these dead girls ending up, if that is what is happening? I staunchly disagree with anyone that thinks the Chinese are killing their daughters on such a wholesale level. So, if the girls are not being aborted or killed after birth, how is the imbalance occurring, if indeed it is?

A partial answer can be found when one looks at the Family Planning program in China. It starts when a woman conceives. The government has set up a number of incentives to encourage a family to register the pregnancies with their local Family Planning official. The first and most important incentive is the child's ID card. This card allows the family to access the medical services of their area hospital for prenatal examinations, delivery services, and post- delivery exams. By registering a pregnancy before it comes full term, the family is given an ID card at no cost. This ID card is required (if enforced) by the hospital in order to have the child there, something highly desirable for safety reasons. Although we assume that most Chinese have their children at home, this is not the case. Fears of complications compel most mothers to have their children in the hospital. But what does a family do that decides not to keep their newborn daughter? Since that daughter has filled their allotted "slot" with the Family Planning office, if the birth was registered there is only one way to be allowed to have another child: report to the Family Planning office that the child died. Following the death of a child, the Family Planning office will erase the child from the records, and the family will be allowed to have another child. In other words, many of our daughters were probably reported as having died by their birth parents. The effect of all this would be to exaggerate the mortality rates of young girls in China, resulting in the belief that there is a population imbalance developing. In fact, however, the girls are not removed from the population. They are living in China's orphanages or informally adopted by other families.

Lisa mentions that she believes 100,000 girls a year are found in China. It is important to remember that this figure approximates the number reported to the police. But that number is not anywhere near the total number of girls found. Why? Because most are never reported to the orphanage. In my research for adoptive families, I have had the opportunity to interview hundreds of "finders", the people involved with discovering the child. In talking with them, nearly all of them indicated a temptation to simply keep the foundling themselves, and not report the finding to the police. One finder had to protect a set of twins from a woman who was intent on taking one of the twins home with her. A woman approached me in an airport, and after learning who I was, and seeing my two adopted daughters, confessed that she had "adopted" her daughter after finding her at two days old on the street. One orphanage director I know also has an "adopted" daughter that was a foundling. It seems likely that for every girl found and reported to the police, 7 to 10 girls are quietly adopted by the community that found them. Thus, a large and growing segment of China's girls are invisible to the statistics and records of the government. These are in fact the "hidden girls".

But again, although they don't show on Chinese governmental censuses and records, they do exist. Since they have not been removed from the population in reality, the "imbalance" is overstated by their numbers, which is at this time unknown. Doesn't the Chinese government know this? Of course. But it is in their best interest to perpetuate the myth of an imbalance in order to increase the intrinsic worth of female children, and thus reduce the causal reasons for female abandonment. They want families to think that women will become scarce so that the families will be motivated to keep their daughters. Thus the Chinese government freely publishes statistics that perpetuate the belief that an imbalance is occurring.

A recent example is this story, taken from the Xinhua News from October 24, 2006. This government story details how difficult it is for some couples to find "flower girls" for their weddings. The reason, according to this story, is the scarcity of young girls in Guangzhou and other cities.

Now, anyone traveling to Guangzhou can see that this story is misleading on its face. There is no shortage of "flower girls" in China (for one, the vast majority of Chinese weddings don't use Western "Flower Girls", but follow traditional Chinese protocol. Only "westernized" couples are beginning to adopt elements from western weddings. Thus this issue is largely moot). Any adoptive family can watch the morning exercises of the school children on Shamian Island to see that there are plenty of "flower girls". For Mr. Long's story to be an accurate representation of the state of things in Guangzhou, the imbalance would need to be considerably higher than 118 to 100. I have no doubt that this story may have been true for his family, but it does not reflect reality in Guangzhou, or anywhere in China. But it does make one believe in a shortage, and that is the point.

There is an imbalance between boys and girls in China, but I believe that the extent of that imbalance is unknown. Until China is able to look into every country farm house and every high-rise apartment, there will remain unknown millions of "hidden" children. Until the extent of this population is known, it is difficult to know what the imbalance truly is.


Donna said...

Brian, didn't you recently tell us that almost nobody in China can adopt a healthy infant since there either aren't any or they're being adopted internationally?

Then you tell us this: "...for every girl found and reported to the police, 7 to 10 girls are quietly adopted by the community that found them."

I don't know what to think anymore.

Double Happiness!

Anonymous said...


So what happens to these "hidden girls" as they grow? Are they allowed into a school without an ID? How will they get medical care? Jobs? Any ideas on how the Chinese government will deal with these millions of officially non-existant women when they are adults?

I would guess that there are millions of "hidden boys" also - just look at the percentage of boys in the Waiting Child adoption program, and you can imagine that there are millions more with "defects" of some sort that have also been absorbed into the population - maybe by couples who can afford medical care to fix their cleft lips/palates, get the heart surgery, etc.

Very enlightening article, as always! Thank you!

Alyssa Ericksen

Research-China.Org said...


I'm sorry, but I don't see the contradiction. There are many children abandoned each year, in the hundreds of thousands apparently. Many of these children are quietly "adopted" by their finders, or end up at the orphanage.

None of that has anything to do with how many families seek to adopt from the orphanages.

Maybe I am missing your point?


Anonymous said...

Thanks again for the fresh look. I liked your comments on schools not being free, and that may account for some of the perceived ( I' m sure there is some) imbalance.

60 Minutes did a piece on the village where our daughter is from ( Linchuan JiangXi) and they showed 1.5 boys to 1 girls in school - knowing how relativley poor the area is, the comment makes more and more sence.

Anonymous said...

I believe Donna's comment is that while there may be a questionable side to the IA process as outlined over the last couple of weeks - You are also saying in that the local communities are taking in the vast majority (80-90%) of the abandoned infants - perhaps out of a desire to "take care of our own".

This is the best news on inherent social responsibility I have read yet.

Perhaps the comments by the directors that we have no healthy infants for domestic adoption are really saying that we do not want to promote local Chinese citizens pay the “bloated” orphanage fees that are gladly and easily paid by western adopters. The money we receive is required to provide our orphanage with a cash flow and there are local options with out paying these fees.

The issues posted over the last couple of weeks with western adoption of healthy infants appears more of a money grab by a few unscrupulous directors due to the popularity of IA, and not the condemnation of the process. Irregardless, little girls and boys both healthy and SN are in need of homes – if the local community takes in the vast majority of the children as put forth, we cannot look to hard at the IA process and feel that we are some how guilty of a causing a problem.

Anonymous said...


What do you mean in your reply to Donna..........There are many children abandoned each year, in the hundreds of thousands apparently.

What do you mean by "apparently". Do you have some statistics for us about how many are approx. abandoned and how many are adopted?

It would be very helful to know.

Research-China.Org said...

We must keep this in perspective. Just because some families decide to keep a child instead of reporting the foundling to an orphanage does not mean we can feel that those that are turned into the orphanage are not wanted, and therefore "guilt-free". The foundling problem in no way satisfies the demand for healthy children from domestic families in China.

I used "apparently" because obviously there is no way of determining how many children are truly abandoned each year. We can't with certitude even know how many are reported to the orphanages. The only figure we can calculate with any certainty is the number placed for international adoption.


Anonymous said...

I know I have read this statistic before (maybe from your site, I am not quite sure) but could you please restate on how many finding ads are found per year in China? I thought that I read 20,000.

I understand that there are about 8,000 IA from the USA.....Do you know what the total number is from all countries?

What is the Chinese government's opinion (if you have seen one stated) on Domestic adoption versus International adoption? Are they doing what they can to swing the movement to more domestic adoption over IA? Are they allowing a certain percentage to domestic and a certain percentage to international or what is their stance on this whole subject? I realize that they probably do not make this known to the public.

Research-China.Org said...

For 2005, the numbers fot he Provinces are as follows:

Jiangxi = 2,800
Guangdong = 2,600
Hunan = 2,200

Guangxi = 1,400
Chongqing = 1,200
Hubei = 800

Anhui, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Gansu, Guizhou, Fujian and the micro-Provinces account for an additional 2,000 or so. Thus, for 2005 the total number of children submitted for international adoption was very close to 13,000.

I believe the Chinese Government is biased to international adoptions. I also believe they continue the international adoption program to garner the funds that international adoptions bring. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the NEED to adopt internationally is gone, at least as far as healthy infants is concerned.

I have seen little emphasis on domestic adoption inside China. But, given the low numbers of healthy children available, increasing the number of families desiring to adopt inside China would be counter-productive.


Anonymous said...


Don't you think it is up to the Chinese government to take a stance and change things around? If they would change their mindset and fill the domestic adoptions first and then the international, that would help their childless or infertile families.

What is your opinion?

What is your opinion?

Research-China.Org said...

I agree that they should adopt as many children as possible domestically before adopting internationally. The only way that will happen, however, is for China to change the way the money flows in the program. One idea would be to centralize the adoption "donations" into the CCAA, which then would re-distribute the funds to the orphanages. In this way there would be no incentive for an orphanage to deny a domestic family in favor of an international one.


Anonymous said...

Brian, Very interesting article- I have thought many of the things you just wrote about... You just said in a response: "given the low numbers of healthy children available..." I can't remember all that you've said lately- but could you please explain very briefly how you "know" there are "low numbers." The reason I ask, is that when we were just in China again adopting in September, I kept asking for opinions whenever I could from our hired guides and other Chinese adoption guides at the hotel in Hunan and then in Guangzhou. Their responses were as varied as you can imagine. "Yes there are less children in the O." "No there are many children in the O. waiting, and the present slow down has made the O. too full..." I also have a friend in a more northern province running a small home orphanage. Her comments to me in the last few months are "I can't take all the children that the larger O. offers me, and the large O. is overflowing with kids." (Most of her children are SN babies.)
Thanks for your thoughts and time.

Anonymous said...

You say the NEED for IA is over - However the money the program brings is in is very beneficial to the SWIs and to the health and welfare of all the children, in particular the children who are not deemed adoptable.

While I agree with the basic premises that it is in an individuals best interest to stay in their community / homeland. I cannot help but feel that the dollars from IA, at the end of the day, provide a net positive for the majority of children who are though birth are forced in the this situation.

I cannot imagine the hopelessness of a Childs life in a SWI without the benefit of western monies and influence. In Jiangxi where my daughter was born, the economic potential that we are told is now available to all Chinese citizens is not reality – it is relatively poor and will never see or approach the Shanghais we see in the media. Programs like Half the Sky and other programs at least allow the children to be treated as something other than a number and the resources provided, while meager compared to a day care center in the states and shift in care giving approach allows these children some hope growing up.

Research-China.Org said...

I believe that the number of healthy NSN children is down for many reasons:

1) Orphanage directors have indicated this is the case
2) In a survey of directors, 93% of orphanage directors indicated they had no healthy children to adopt (see my article on China and the Hague Agreement)
3) Wait times are increasing
4) The CCAA has repeatedly attributed this increase and wait times to a lack of healthy babies.

I have no doubt that some families, guides, etc., might anecdotally believe that there are still lots of children available. But unless one determines if the healthy children are "in process" for adoption, or if they are in fact healthy, it is impossible to know if the orphanage is "full" or not. A large orphanage might have 40 babies filling its cribs, but almost certainly those babies will have their paperwork at the CCAA for international adoption.

Regarding the finances of IA adoption. While I too am sensitive to the plight of those left behind, I don't see that as justification for a faulty system. I believe, for example, that if China restructured its program to allow only minor-SN and SN children to be adopted internationally, and NSN children to be adopted domestically, that revenues could actually increase to the orphanages. I believe this because I believe a significant portion of the 8,000 families that adopt from China each year would be willing to accept minor SN in lieu of a NSN child. In this way all of the healthy infants would be adopted domestically, and a higher number of SN children would be adopted, reducing the institutions overhead and increasing revenue. We must remember that we are not talking strict "Special Needs" here. We are simply talking about children who, for one reason or another, are difficult to place inside China. This might be an older child, or one with a minor cleft lip, or a sixth finger, or a large birth mark, or some other "minor" SN.


Anonymous said...

Brian, you write that "the foundling problem in no way satisfies the demand for healthy children from domestic families in China." However, you have no statistics that indicate the number of Chinese families that want to adopt but can't.

I think the "foundling" example illustrates why there may not be a big demand for domestic adoption in China--Chinese families find unofficial ways of adopting children. Several native Chinese have told me stories about how unwanted babies are often "adopted" by another family in the village or neighborhood.

So while I agree with you that the number of NSN children available for IA is declining, I can't agree with your second premise that IA is hurting Chinese domestic adoption. Your own post indicates that much of that demand may be satisfied by unoffical adoptions.

Research-China.Org said...


While informal adoptions do account for many adoptions, the overwhelming majority of orphanage directors (both those involved in the IA program and not) indicate they have waiting domestic families. In fact, a large percentage indicated the average wait for a domestic family inside China was over a year, and in many cases 3 years. So, even with the prevalance of informal adoptions, many, many families are still seeking to adopt from the orphanages.


Anonymous said...

It's a bit ironic that, for the child, the current thinking is that it is better to be adopted in-country, but this is detrimental to the overpopulation problem China is seeking to ease. I think this is a very complicated issue with no easy answers.

Anonymous said...


I am not sure that I have ever seen any numbers on the families in China wanting to adopt. I re-read your survey of some IA orphanages and didn't see any numbers on how many families were on their waiting lists. So I am still not sure why you keep asserting that IA is hurting Chinese domestic adoption when you have no statistics on the unmet demand for adopted children in China.
You even mention in that post that those SWIs are doing a significant number of domestic adoptions.

Aside from that point, I do think your most recent post is very good. Several experts have also begun to attack the so-called gender gap in China and other Asian countries--with many saying that much of the gap can be explained by diseases such as hepatitis that are prevelant in those countries that seem to cause death more in baby girls than boys.

Anonymous said...

Brian: The "boy imbalance" topic of this post has been the subject of lots of research and debate among social researchers and demographers. Among the demographers, Daniel Goodkind's article in Population Studies (2004, Vol. 58 Issue 3, p281-295) is a good example. He attributes gender imbalance ratios to under reporting of female births focusing on China's 2000 population census to estimate a total of nearly 37 million children "missing" in these census figures. For this he blames policy changes beginning in the early 1990s that held officials at all jurisdictional levels personally responsible for enforcing birth quotas. However, a lot of social researchers collecting qualitative data on the ground, especially in rural villages, have clearly documented observed gender imbalance and not just among children, which has fueled skepticism about under reporting as a primary explanation. There has been a very interesting debate about the probable causes of observed imbalance. A lot has been written for example about the high prevalence of selective abortion made easier by medical technologies relatively affordable even in rural areas, a widespread practice the Chinese have recently been trying to control. One theory debated by Monica Das Gupta, Emily Oster and others suggests that disease may play a major role in gender imbalance not just in China but across southern and central Asia, more specifically highly prevalent diseases such as Hepatitis B that have been shown to markedly decrease the chances of female births among infected birth mothers. (Example: Oster, Emily. 2005. “Hepatitis B and the case of the missing women,” Harvard University Center for International Development Working Paper 7, Cambridge, MA.)

As a parent of two Chinese daughters (one from a scandalized SWI in Hunan), I second your suggestion that a major problem with foreign adoption in China today is a money flow that can make orphanage revenue dependent on each orphanage's ability to supply large numbers of children to a strained foreign adoption program. I think China's state-controlled orphanage system that foreign adoption is intended to assist seems to increasingly exist apart from a larger mix of informal adoption and baby-trafficking that serves to place more abandoned children domestically, especially in rural areas and China's vast population, which is likely even more vast than official estimates, is still more than 80% rural. Glad you're still addressing this stuff.

Anonymous said...

Figuring out the China adoption program - what's real and what's distorted - it just doesn't seem possible with the information available. I was interested in the special needs/ waiting child program, but I couldn't get a straight answer on how it worked. Non special needs was much more straightforward. If the CCAA and/or local agencies want to promote special needs adoption, there needs to be a more straightforward process.


Anonymous said...

Brian (or anyone),

What *does* happen to these unregistered girls as they reach school age and beyond? The question about school, medical care, and jobs seems unanswered. From the little I've seen of China, I can't imagine it's easy to manage for long without documentation, even in a very rural community.

Research-China.Org said...

To Patti:

I agree with you that the WC program should be overhauled, and streamlined to facilitate more adoptions form this pool of children. I believe the CCAA is working on several improvements, but we will have to see if they go far enough.

To Bob:

Eventually, of course, the child will need to obtain an ID card in order to function in Chinese society. When a child is young, the primary purpose of the ID card is to allow them entry into the "public" schools. But families can also choose to avoid that scrutiny by enrolling them in a "private" school in their village that does not require ID cards. The tuition is higher, but gives them additional options.

It is of course difficult to know how many "hidden" children there are in China. I would love to see a study that comprehensively surveys the Residents Committee records for a particular village with the actual residents to see how big (or small) the official records differ from reality.


Anonymous said...

How do you get the amount of finding adds published per year?

Research-China.Org said...

I collect them from all of the Provinces doing adoptions.