China drops one-child policy: Could this be good for girls?

China will permit couples to have two children after three and a half decades of its one-child policy. Can the change ease the country's massive gender imbalance?

Jason Lee/ Reuters
A mother plays with her daughter in Beijing. On Thursday, China announced it will relax its controversial, decades-long one child policy to allow couples two children.

More of China's "little emperors" are about to get siblings.

After 35 years of a de facto "one-child policy," under which parents expecting a second baby could face sky-high fees or pressure to abort, families will now be allowed two children.

Will this mean more baby girls?

Communist Party leaders announced the change on Thursday, concluding a series of secretive meetings in Beijing. Maintaining the country's phenomenal economic growth rate has become an increasing challenge, particularly as the population's percentage of retirees creeps up. Officials hope that lifting the child cap will attack that challenge threefold: providing workers, spurring demand for consumer goods, and helping to support the elderly in a nation where filial piety is written into law.

But some experts question whether a baby boom is really on the horizon: Chinese child-rearing is an expensive business. Still, baby girls, in particular, could benefit from a policy that could reduce China's 116-to-100 male-to-female ratio, which is often even higher in rural areas.

The traditional Chinese preference for sons was kicked into overdrive by the Party's one-child policy, which is credited with preventing up to 400 million births. In light of the crises China already faces from its 1.35 billion population, such as pollution, it's easy to see the logic of controlling family size, notwithstanding ethical issues. 

But those achievements came at the cost of what some call "gendercide," in which parents often abort female fetuses in hopes of holding out for a son, and partly explains why there is one abortion in China for every 100 people, five times the US rate. 

Forced abortion is prohibited by the Chinese government, but, like many aspects of life, local officials often dictate day to day reality more than Beijing. They work under pressure to meet the one-child policy's specific quotas, leading to forced sterilizations and abortions despite the bans.  

While 16 extra boys for every 100 girls may not sound like much of a problem, the effects are far-reaching, harm men and women alike, and have the potential for long-term instability. 

In the next five years alone, 20 to 30 million young men won't be able to find wives, the Washington Post reported — a dilemma that prompted one Chinese professor to propose polyandry, or letting one woman have multiple husbands. It proved unpopular with China's netizens, to say the least, although he argued that relegating millions of men to bachelorhood was not more unethical than thinking about women in terms of 'rare resources.'

In lieu of Chinese brides, more and more men, especially poor farmers, are turning to mail-order wives from abroad. Many women come willingly, but Amb. Mark Lagon, who is director of the US government's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, told the Washington Times that China is becoming "a giant magnet" for sex trafficking, too. 

In a worst-case scenario, trafficking in women could just be the tip of a criminal iceberg. Multiple researchers have linked off-balance gender ratios with historical increases in crime

Starting a family provides Chinese men with "a vested interest in a system of law and order," Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. Den Boer argue in a paper published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Those who cannot, known as "bare branches" in Chinese, "are already at risk for establishing a system ... to obtain by force what they cannot obtain legitimately," and may not make the adult transition from frustrated adolescents to "protectors of society." 

In 2013, the government relaxed the one-child policy for couples who were only children themselves; the rule did not apply to rural families with a first-born daughter or ethnic minorities, either. But only 12% of eligible couples applied to have a second child after the 2013 reform, and social scientists predict that this week's changes will spur not a baby boom, but more of a modest crawl, the effects of which may not be known for decades

Yet it's more likely that at least some of the "little emperor" generation will soon have to share their parents' attention with a younger brother – or a sister.

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