How China’s One-Child Policy put Women in the Demographic Driver’s Seat

Chinese WomenBy Bill Powell


Historically, China has been a patriarchal culture in which the subjugation of women is symbolized most cruelly by the phenomenon of bound feet, a practice that didn’t disappear entirely until the early 20th century. And it remains a male-dominated society today, never mind that ever since the ruling Communist Party came to power in 1949 it has trumpeted a phrase attributed to Mao Zedong: “Women hold up half the sky.” Indeed, the demographic imbalance between men and women speaks to just how male-dominated it remains. The combination of China’s one child policy and the advent of sonograms has meant that families who preferred a son could get what they wanted, aborting unwanted girls. The gender imbalance is a function of what Lauren Johnston, a Ph.D. student at Peking University writing a book on the subject, calls “the familial race to have an heir,” greatly intensified by the one-child policy, which has been in effect since 1980.

With that backdrop, the recent progress of women within China is significant. Ever since 1995, when it hosted a high-profile United Nations conference on women’s rights (attended by then–first lady Hillary Clinton) the government in Beijing has paid increasing attention to—and made some progress on—core feminist issues: access to jobs and higher education; stricter laws (and enforcement thereof) against domestic violence and sexual harassment; and more equitable divorce laws.

That there is still a long way to go is undeniable. The April arrest of five feminist activists for trying to raise awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace triggered a storm of criticism on Chinese social media—and was an abject embarrassment for a central government that this fall is scheduled to co-host with the U.N. a global women’s summit. Too much of the all-male leadership at the very top of the Beijing government “have not an iota of an idea about the women’s rights movement,” says Wang Zheng, a longtime feminist activist in China and a professor at the University of Michigan.

But the demographic reality of modern China—that the number of boys so greatly outnumbers the girls—has far-reaching effects. And one of them—in the social sphere, in the everyday interaction between the sexes—is empowering women. In Chinese cities, the evidence of that is pretty much everywhere.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: Stougard (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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