Another Explanation for Sex Selection in China?

In a podcast called “Misadventures in Baby-Making,” we explored China’s one-child policy as a cause of sex-selective abortion and, therefore, skewed male-female sex rations. A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Douglas Almond, Hongbin Li, and Shuang Zhang points to another possible culprit: China’s economic liberalization. From the abstract:

Following the death of Mao in 1976, abandonment of collective farming lifted millions from poverty and heralded sweeping pro-market policies. How did China’s excess in male births respond to rural land reform? In newly-available data from over 1,000 counties, a second child following a daughter was 5.5 percent more likely to be a boy after land reform, doubling the prevailing rate of sex selection. Mothers with higher levels of education were substantially more likely to select sons than were less educated mothers. The One Child Policy was implemented over the same time period and is frequently blamed for increased sex ratios during the early 1980s. Our results point to China’s watershed economic liberalization as a more likely culprit.


I agree that the one-child policy takes an unfair share of the blame. As far as I know there's no one-child policy in India, yet they are managing to produce an even more skewed birth ratio than China.


Articles about skewed birth ratios in China and India have been in the news for years (maybe decades). As an outsider, this is what has always puzzled me: Assuming that baby boys are more popular and girls are selectively aborted, then 20 years later there is a ratio of (let's say) 51 men to 49 women. Why then does the relative value of women not increase, by the law of supply and demand? Wouldn't the two men who are being left out tend to demand less in dowry? Perhaps they would even be willing to pay a "reverse dowry".

(This is not to imply support for the ideas of abortion, dowries, or arranged marriage. I'm simply baffled that under the current system the ratio doesn't return to 50-50 via economic incentives. Has anyone studied this?)


The relative value of women does increase, but only as objects, not people. There is an increase in trafficking of women, imported for arranged/forced marriages, or prostitiution. People do respond to economic incentives, but not always to make the world a better place.


There is also the rumour that parents do not register girls (a bribe will do the trick) so they can still have another shot at a boy. Means the boy girl ratio using official stats could be misleading.