How The One-Child-Rule Messed Up China

I was on the standup show Burn Booth in their Santa Monica episode. In this show, professional standup comedians roast random people (with their consent) and dish out the craziest insults. Since I lived near Santa Monica, I volunteered to help them out.

One of their jokes was so funny and close to home that it warranted an essay (yes, the comedians were so amazing that they inspired me intellectually). Watch the whole episode here:

Go to 1:09 if you want to hear that joke that prompted this essay. Basically, comedian Adam Tod Brown says:

Do you have any siblings, or did your parents just have all girls after you?

And guess what? My parents did have girls after me. They aborted them.

You might ask why there's a favoritism toward men in China when so much of America spoils the female.

Let's look at Chinese history:

For the majority of Chinese history, the society was agricultural. In any agricultural society, having girls delayed your output of crops because the mother had to take care of the child and not be out in the field. A female child would also not be able to do the really hard upper-body work that men could do after a certain age. Because of this difference in physiology between men and women, men were favored.

Of course, the official Chinese cultural explanation for the preference for guys is that the "family name" gets passed down, but I will call that a consequence of the evolutionary sexual dimorphism and Chinese geography and not the cause of the favoritism toward boys.

For those of you familiar with sociology, I'm taking a functional approach to analyzing this facet of Chinese culture.

So why the abortion part of this joke?

The Communists took over and decided to enact 计划生育 (the One Child Policy). The Communists predicted (correctly) that at the then-current level of economic growth, the country just couldn't sustain the population growth, so they artificially capped the number of kids a family could have--to one child. 

The result of enacting this legislation in China was that the country-folks, the ones still engaged in agriculture, would abort girls for the simple reason that they needed boys to work the fields, and the city-folks, like my parents, would abort girls because a boy was needed to pass on the family name. So from a sociological standpoint, the behavior persisted in the city folks due to some other functional reason (maybe because it kept the ruling class in power because people under them were so worried about having boys instead of examining the fact that their rights were being trampled on). That's often what happens in life. People just keep doing stuff and a secondary ideology emerges to justify the persistence of whatever outdated practice, even if it leads to counterproductive results (update: I analyzed this factor a lot more below the line break if you're interested).

After decades of sex-selective abortions, many places in China have gender disparities. Too many boys and not enough girls. I'm not a fortune teller or a soothsayer, but my gut says that this gender imbalance will cause problems in the near future as all these children become adults. I'm sure I'm not the first person to predict this.

Since China embraced a certain central-planned, crony-version of capitalism in the 1980s, the growth has been amazing, and Chinese policy leaders now realize that having too many old people will contract the economy and be a ticking time bomb when they start retiring without enough young people in the economic work force. So now China's loosened up the one-child-rule, making it a two-child-rule. Too bad millions of baby girls were already thrown down wells or left on the hospital table after birth to die.

Let's hope for the next forty years, Chinese people start having a lot more girls...


Update (4:54 pm, 2/29/16):

My dad added two great points to this analysis.

One reason that city folks want to have a male heir is because wealth and inheritance passes down to the male heir. While that's a good reason, it doesn't explain the emergence of the favoritism toward boys, which starts with the agricultural needs.

So the whole male heir and "what they get" part of Chinese culture came as a consequence of society's favoritism toward males.

Another reason that Chinese folks want to have a male heir, my dad added, is because male heirs are expected to take care of parents. However, that's also a consequence of our agricultural functionalism. In other words, this trait in Chinese culture also developed later. The root cause is still the agricultural needs of labor. I will draw a chart on this:

So essentially, there are actually two functional feedback loops in practice here that keep the preference toward males intact in Chinese culture. But it doesn't change the fact that agriculture was what caused the emergence of the preference for males. Hope this chart makes sense.