Geography Research Paper on China’s ‘Missing Girls’

China’s ‘Missing Girls’


In China, the high ratio of male to female has been raising concerns among researchers. Avraham Ebenstein asserts that global policymakers have also noticed the alarming increase of males to females across China. China’s ‘missing girls’ has been issue linked to the ‘One Child Policy.’ More so, fertility across the country has reduced over the recent past. The highest sex ratios are observed among people under very strict fertility control. The high ratios are attributed to an increase in the prevalence of sex selection. The sex selection ranges between the first and second births. The research, therefore, will exploit regional and temporal variation in relation to the ‘missing girls’ in China. It will demonstrate the unintended consequences of exacerbating distortion in China’s sex ratio.


The People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. It hosted a population of 540 million people. Decades later, the population has increased exceeding 800-million people. The increase in population was mainly observed between 1950s and 1970s. The alarming increase created a global concern. It was believed that China was headed for ‘Malthusian collapse’, which refers to an unchecked population growth that can outstrip availability and affordability of food and resources resulting in massive famine. As a result, the Chinese fertility policy was re-evaluated in an attempt to limit fertility. The evaluation culminated in the ‘One Child Policy’ (Ebenstein 88). The policy was developed and implemented in 1979 for China’s family planning programs to reduce fertility rates.

Analysis of China’s Missing Girls

Debra Killalea estimates that at least 60-million girls are missing in China as they were killed either before or after birth due to their gender (1). Government records have also failed to document at least 25-million girls as they have not been registered. Debra, however, notes that the national population data has been spanning for 25-years. In 2006, a National Geographic documentary called ‘China’s Lost Girls’ looked into the issue of China’s ‘Missing girls’. It claimed that one quarter of China’s children especially girls are adopted in America. The National Geographic followed Chinese families into Chinese orphanages to capture the adoption process.

According to Ebenstein, Amartya Sen alerted Western researchers on sex bias in relative care across China in 1990 (89). The researchers had acknowledged that there were high fractions of males and females in China. The Chinese population had also witnessed Chinese women experience decades of mistreatment and neglect. Amartya Sen, therefore, alerted the researchers in an attempt to suggest that sex bias was responsible for the high Chinese sex ratio. Amartya also claimed that at least 50-million Chinese women and 100-million women around the world were not accounted for after scrutinizing natural birth and mortality rates. After policy makers read Amartya’s research findings, they gathered resources to conduct further research on the issue of China’s ‘Missing Girls’.

The female deficit in China has been growing. General improvement in infant health care across China has not ensured the number of male and female children aged between 15 and 13 years respectively to balance. Marriage prospects for future generations of Chinese men have, therefore, been grim if the sex ratios do not balance. In 2005, a consensus emerged that sex ratio distortion in China was attributed to prenatal discrimination against female conceptions (Ebenstein 91). The consensus was based on fertility surveys, field work, and census data. The consensus provided a number of findings. Foremost, it was revealed that Chinese parents have been favoring large families since time immemorial. The parents also direct family resources to their sons rather than daughters, as they believe their male children have the capacity to expand the family. Consequently, policy makers have been compelled to limit fertility, especially since 1979, when the ‘One Child Policy’ was implemented. The sex ratio of births, however, began to expand forcing fertility levels to decline facilitating the rise in male fraction of births.

Between 1950s and 1960s, the total fertility exceeded six births per mother, following famine associated with Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Chinese officials and the Communist Party raised concerns on the rapid growth of the population. Subsequently, they enacted a series of fertility control policies. Their efforts culminated in formulation of the ‘One Child Policy’ in 1979, which excluded additional children from free public education. More so, the policy made parents who violated it liable to fines. Additionally, forced sterilization and abortion campaigns followed, in 1983. The campaigns created domestic unrest prompting Chinese policy makers to consider revising the 1979 policy (Ebenstein 89).  For example, they considered allowing some mothers to have more than one child. The government, however, hoped the revised policy would discourage violations of the guiding principle and increase the number of public members supporting the ‘One Child Policy’. More so, the Chinese government instituted localized fertility policy in 1984.

The policy subjected residents of different provinces to diversely mandated limits. Despite the ‘one child policy’ being enforced especially on urban residents, mothers with daughters across several rural provinces were permitted to have additional births. The revision of the policy was referred to as the ‘1.5 Child Policy’. Families located in remote areas, however, were allowed to bear a second and third child (Gu, Feng, Guo and Erli 130). Currently, the Chinese fertility policy imposes a one child limit on urban residents. The Chinese government targets urban residents as it believes they make up about a third of the country’s population.

The government also enforces the ‘1.5 Child Policy’ limit in rural areas and a two or three child policy limit for people residing in provinces located in remote areas (Yi 221). The policy has been granting exclusions to various groups including ethnic minorities and communities employed in dangerous occupations. Historically, parents across China preferred sons to daughters. Others discarded daughters as soon as they were born, especially in the 1960s when fertility rates were high coupled with low infant mortality rates. The pattern was muted temporarily by mothers with at least one surviving son without resorting to sex selection. The female deficit, however, continued to reduce. The reduction was observed due to high fertility and low infant mortality. The two factors, therefore, contributed to an unsustainable population growth.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese government started to promote the ‘Two Is Enough’ policy. Consequently, the sex ration following first and second born daughters began to rise. Prenatal sex selection during that period was also limited due to the unreliable traditional methods that were applied to identify the sex of an unborn child. After the ultrasound technology was introduced, the demand for sex-selective abortion increased. For example, population control officials would send portable ultrasound machines to cities across China in 1980s facilitating sex-selective abortions. The machines, therefore, represented a major development in sex-selection, as they allowed mothers to either abort or conceive if the sex of the baby was deemed favorable. Demographers have also been exploring other explanations for the high sex ratios observed across China (Feng, Guo and Erli 131). For example, they have been exploring adoption, differential mortality rates, and sex-selective abortion.

Research on China’s Missing Girls

According to Jiang Quanbao, Shuzhuo Li, and Marcus Feldman, there are two methods applied in calculating the number and percentage of China’s missing girls (57). By applying the sex ratio of the total population as the benchmark, the total number of males should be divided by the sex ratio of the chosen benchmark to obtain the expected number of females. Difference between number of expected girls and the observed population ought to reflect the number of missing girls. The second method involves calculating missing girls by cohort using China’s census data. The expected sex ratio for a cohort can be calculated by identifying the assumed normal sex ratio at birth and mortality patterns of males and females. Consequently, the number and percentage of missing girls can be computed.

There have been four censuses in China, which were conducted in 1982, 1990, 2000, and 2010. In 2010, the census provided new data affirming that the total population had increased by 11.7%. The World Population Prospects estimated China’s total population to be 1,354 million. The number was revised in 2012 adjusting China’s total fertility rate to 1.5. Thus, reliable data sources affirming the consensus of female children in China have been lacking. More so, deaths are often undercounted or underreported due to lack of information that is crucial in adjusting data. China’s provinces since 1982 have been showing signs of deviation from normal as they are below 112 normal. In 2010, 13-provinces had sex ratio at birth (SRB) over 120 with total births accounting for 60.4% of national births. With China’s SRB ranging between 112 and 120, estimates of the missing girls between 1980 and 2010 have been increasing annually. Jiang, Shuzhuo, and Marcus claim that birth cohort increased between 1990 and 1999 to 9.31% from 2.93% (64). Thus, SRB has been fluctuating around 120, corresponding to 10.85% of China’s missing girls since 2000. As a result, 7.34% or 20.13-million is the total number of missing girls in China.

Geographic Patterns and Explanations

The China census samples contain basic demographic information containing data on men, women, and children residing in the country. The information is also applied to identify households’ members, and the kind of relationships they maintain with the heads of the homes. The census, however, does not provide information on children residing away from home. Between 1990 and 2000, the Chinese census sought to reveal the number of males and females living at home with their parents. The information was applied to reflect the impact of sex preference on parents stopping probability and close correspondence between mothers and their daughters living at home. The male fraction of subsequent births was also reviewed revealing that a small portion of first born children prefer remaining at home. The female deficit, therefore, was attributed to a large number of mothers preferring their sons to their daughters residing at home (Ebenstein 104). Thus, the Chinese preference for sons has increased the female deficit.

Sex ratio distortion has also been caused by adoption of unwanted girls by Chinese families without daughters. Published figures indicate that at least 10,000 adoptions are recorded annually across China. There are, however, reports that assert that more than 50,000 adoptions occur annually as there are informal adoptions that are never reported. Ultimately, the figures affirm that adoption in China is common. According to Gu, Feng, Guo and Erli (137), there is a negligible share of missing girls adopted abroad from China. The author asserts that at least 95% of infants adopted from China are often girls. Sex-selection practices, therefore, attribute to female deficit as adopting families often enumerate daughters.

In 2005, an orthodox opinion was published claiming that parental interventions following daughters are responsible for sex ratio distortions. High hepatitis rates in China among other Asian nations have also attributed to high sex ratios. Biological hypotheses, however, can be difficult to reconcile the high sex ratios following daughters and extended birth intervals preceding sons. High sex ratios often represent strong evidence on sex selection, which is attributed to China’s ‘Missing Girls’ (Oster 1164). Parents under strict fertility limits characterized by lower fertility and higher sex rations also support the claim that human decisions are responsible for the female deficit in China.  The long standing demographic patterns and fertility policies slowing population growth have, therefore, led to a deficit of females across China.

Implications of the ‘One Child Policy’ and the Future Outlook

According to Oster (1167), the ‘One Child Policy’ hassled to the levying of fines to parents who give birth to more than one child. The parents are also subject to diverse monetary punishments. For example, their properties are seized or forced to resign as a government employee. There have been four fertility limits for four different categories of parents. The first limit is known as ‘Hukou’. It represents parents registered to an urban work zone and subjected to the ‘One Child Policy’ limit. They are, however, often allowed a second child. The condition that the first child has to be a daughter, however, has to be observed. The condition has facilitated the ‘1.5 Child Policy’ to persist. Consequently, residents in autonomous regions are allowed a second birth. Finally, ethnic minorities are subjected to weaker regulations in all Chinese provinces. Since 2000s, mothers have been choosing to give birth to sons, especially after facing a fine for bearing a child. Women at the peak of child bearing years have been under the ‘One Child Policy’. Women under strictest fertility controls have been bearing sons at a higher rate. Thus, there is a direct role for fertility control due to rise in sex ratio at birth.

According to Debra killalea (1), more than 60-million girls have been missing in China. People believe the girls were either killed before or after birth due to their gender. Research was conducted to revel that at least 25-million girls have been existing. They, however, fail to appear in government records as they have not been registered to avoid raising concerns on gender imbalance across China. Debra notes that the Californian population records over 30-million. Thus, if China misses over 30-million girls, the world should not ignore the issue; rather investigate why they have not been recorded.

According to Debra (1), the researchers report that the national population data spanning for 25-years finds a combination of late registration and unreported births of girls. They are often cited in Chinese sex-ratio-at-birth statistics prompting authorities especially in rural areas to turn a blind eye to extra children in villages who are victims of the regulations of the ‘One Child Policy’. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of men and female births has been diverse. Debra claims China discovered an extra 4-million people in 2000, with females exceeding males. Thus, the statistics affirmed that it was possible for at least 25 million women to be absent, while accounting Chinas’ population.

In 2015, Beijing announced that it was ending the ‘One Child Policy’. A bill allowing all married couples to have a second child was signed (Killalea 1). Deng Xiaoping introduced the 1979 ‘One Child Policy’. The leader claimed that the policy ensured couples who violated it faced severe penalties, fines, forced to have abortions for attempting to give birth to a higher number of children than the law allows.  The policy developed to curb the national population, however, led to an increase in gender imbalance. More so, societal preference for boys and claims of sex-selective abortions or infanticides targeted girls. In 2013, the Chinese government allowed couples to bear a second child. The condition, however, was that a couple had to prove it had only a single child. According to Debra, the new permit was a little too late as the Chinese population crisis had been looming.


Rapid industrialization and changes in fertility have been reshaping China for the last four decades. For example, due to the chine community’s preference of male children to female ones, selective abortion targeting girl children resulting in an increased ration of male children to female ones. Although fertility has been slowing across China, the imbalance in sex ratio has been a pressing concern that has been worsening. As a result, the Chinese government ought to ensure that the female deficit does not worsen. For example, policy makers in family planning ought to encourage women to change their fertility behaviors without actually addressing their preferences and unanticipated consequences. The Chinese ‘One Child Policy’, therefore, ought to reduce the sex ratio at birth. For example, it should allow parents to bear sons without necessarily resorting to sex selection. Conversely, it will be costly for China’s next generations.









Works Cited

Ebenstein, Avraham. The “Missing Girls” of China and the Unintended Consequences of the One Child Policy. The Journal of Human Resources, vol. 45, no. 1, 2010, pp. 87-115.

Gu, Baochang, Feng Wang, Guo Zhigang, and Erli Zhang. China’s Local and National Fertility Policies at the End of the Twentieth Century. Population and Development Review, vol. 33, no. 1, 2007, pp. 129–47.

Killalea, Debra. China’s ‘Missing Girls’: The Millions Hiding from the One Child Policy., 2016. Accessed 22 July 2017.

Oster, Emily. Hepatitis B and the Case of the Missing Women. Journal of Political Economy, vol. 113, no. 6, 2005, pp. 1163–1216.

Quanbao, Jiang, Li Shuzhuo, and Feldman Marcus. China’s Missing Girls in the Three Decades from 1980 to 2010. Asian Women, vol. 28, no. 3, 2012, pp. 52-73.

Yi, Zeng. Options for Fertility Policy Transition in China. Population and Development Review, vol. 33, no. 2, 2007, pp. 215–46.