China's Missing Women

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has announced a “Care
for Girls”
program with financial incentives for those who produce

to China’s official news agency, 119
are now born for every 100 girls; the “natural” ratio is
103–107 for every 100. By 2020, it is estimated that China
may contain 30 to 40 million restless bachelors. Unfortunately,
the proposed “cure” merely continues the process that helped create
the crisis: namely, social engineering.

engineering occurs when a centralized power tries to manipulate
or override people’s preferences to make them behave according to
a social blueprint. It is the opposite of allowing a culture to
evolve naturally according to the preferences of individuals. Rules
are imposed, sometimes by dangling carrots but usually by wielding

the early ’80s, the one-child policy was selectively imposed upon
the Chinese people as a way to override the popular choice to have
two or more children. Additional pregnancies were subject to coerced
. The one-child policy did not seek to disproportionately
reduce the female population; it aimed at a general reduction. But
the state’s vision of “a family” did not factor in the preferences
of parents.

speaking, the Chinese have favored sons over daughters, partly because
the culture has undervalued women. But there are also practical
reasons. In rural areas where hard labor means survival, sons are
usually stronger. Moreover, daughters leave home upon marriage and
their adult labor enriches the husband’s family. Thus, when rural
families are forced to limit their families, they may act to ensure
the birth of sons. If an ultrasound reveals that a fetus is female,
the woman may abort. (Improved technology has also contributed to
the sex imbalance.) If a female infant is born, she may be killed
or sent away for foreign adoption.

the latest Chinese census shows that the rural provinces of Hainan
and Guangdong have sex-birth ratios of 135.6 and 130.3 boys to 100
girls respectively. The sex imbalance is what the social theorist
von Hayek
called an “unintended consequence.” Every act has
unforeseen and unintended consequences that may determine its impact
far more than the act’s intended goal.

saw at least two practical problems with social engineering, both
of which involve unintended consequences. The first problem speaks
to the nature of a healthy society. If left to the labor and ingenuity
of individual members, society tends to evolve answers to the problems
confronting it.

used language as an example of both problem-solving and unintended
consequence. No one sat down to plan the development of language.
Human beings evolved a sophisticated and standardized form of communication
because they wanted to trade and establish intricate social relationships.
Language was an unintended consequence – a tool that evolved
– as people individually pursued the intended goal of socializing.
Or, Hayek would phrase it, language is “the result of human action
but not of human design.”

Hayek, when a government oversteps its proper function of protecting
freedom and begins, instead, to dictate choices, it damages the
dynamics of a healthy society. It prevents individuals from adapting
and evolving solutions.

second practical difficulty with social engineering was “the
knowledge problem.”
In accepting the Nobel Prize in Economic
Science for 1974, Hayek explained,
“The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought
[to guard] the student of society … against becoming an accomplice
in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving, which
makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well
make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed
but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.”

terms of China, Hayek would argue that a centralized bureaucracy
could not successfully design the choices or determine the outcomes
for hundreds of millions of people with whom it has not even consulted.
This becomes especially true as circumstances change over time.
All the bureaucracy can do is to attempt to control people by limiting
their options. And, the longer it imposes social control, the more
unintended consequences stack up.

of what China faces now are the unintended consequences of a two-decade
long attempt to socially engineer the Chinese family.

proposed remedy is to introduce yet another program of social engineering
this time with the seemingly benevolent goal of increasing respect
for girls. But Chinese social control does not have a benevolent
history. Those who view the “Care
for Girls”
program in such a light should remember that the
one-child program was first applauded as progressive and voluntary
by many Westerners.

ultimate folly of the “Care
for Girls”
program may well be that it is unnecessary. Simply
by becoming scarce, girls have become more highly valued. The issue
of “the missing girls” has social commentators speculating wildly
about China’s future. Will roving gangs of young men overrun the
nation, or will China declare war in order to siphon off her “surplus”

a new appreciation of their importance to society, the role of women
in China seems poised for redefinition. The Chinese government can
best help that process by getting out of the way.

2, 2004

McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
See more of her work at
and at her personal website.

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