Asia’s Disappearing Daughters

On China Beat, Jeffrey Wasserstrom reviews a new book by Mara Hvistendahl, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, which looks at at the gender gap in China and elsewhere in Asia:

Why are there so many more boys than girls in many parts of China—and how worrisome is this phenomenon?

Freelance journalist Mara Hvistendahl had questions like these on her mind several years ago, when she set out to do interviews in Suining, a county midway between Beijing and Shanghai that for much of the past had been “notable only for its ordinariness,” as she puts it. Suining, she claims, is the kind of place where even the food veers away from extremes (dishes are “a little spicy, a little salty, a little sweet”, neither fiery like those of Sichuan nor as elegant as those of Guangdong) and even the best known historical celebrity started out a man “of humble peasant origins” (before leading a popular rebellion more than two millennia ago that made him Emperor).

What drew her to this otherwise ordinary setting was one extraordinary thing: a gender ratio that, even for China, was horribly off-kilter. In 2007, some 150 boys were being born for every 100 girls (slightly more boys than girls tend to be born globally, but anything over about a 105 to 100 split is considered a significant departure from the norm). The fruits of her time in Suining, where she heard tales confirming that sonograms followed by sex-selective abortions rather than female infanticide were at the root of the problem, was a superb Virginia Quarterly article called “Half the Sky: How China’s Gender Imbalance Threatens Its Future” (2008). Material from that work of reportage, supplemented by an impressive amount of reading (in scholarly publications in multiple fields and about many lands), plus travels to far flung locales (European and American, as well as Asian), has now been reworked into an ambitious, provocative, and carefully-crafted book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.

Shanghai Scrap has also posted an in-depth interview with Hvistendahl
about the book:

Scrap: Focusing on China – it’s almost accepted gospel, for those not familiar with the issue, that infanticide, the one-child policy, and abandonment account for the country’s skewed sex ratio, and that abortion is only part of the mix. Yet you not only object to that formulation, you seem to imply that it’s both condescending and a gross distortion that obscures the real issues. Could you give a sense of how important each of those facts is, in fact, to China’s gender issues, and why they are only a small part of the overall picture?

Hvistendahl: That is the typical explanation given for China’s skewed sex ratio at birth, and it’s amazing how consistently it crops up in reports by news organizations and NGOs. I think abandonment is on the radar in the West because of our history of adopting children from China. But it is a relatively small part of the story in 2011, and infanticide happens very rarely today. Skewed sex ratios at birth are now found in many countries with no tradition of infanticide and no one-child policy. By and large, the gap is the result of sex selective abortion.

I think these local or cultural explanations persist in part because they’re easy. It’s easier to say this is a culture that has a tradition of killing girls than it is to interrogate our own role in bringing sex selection to Asia. Too often Western narratives about China explain what happens there as either the product of a monolithic government or an immutable past—as if China were not home to the same complexity and deep, varied history as the West.

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