In China's Megacities, Baby Girls Equal Mega Savings

???? (zhòng nán qing nu), or “strong on the man and light on the woman,” is the Chinese saying used to express the centuries-old preference of Chinese families for sons. This deeply rooted tradition goes back centuries before China’s reform and opening-up period, when the country was a heavily agrarian society. Today parents continue to depend on sons for old-age care and to carry on the family line.

The ratio of male births to female births grew dramatically after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping instituted the one-child policy in 1979. After the advent of ultrasound technology in the 1980s this gender imbalance increased even more as parents chose to abort their female fetuses.

Gendercide continues in modern-day China. Revealing the extent to which sex selective abortions have occurred, the CIA estimated in its 2013 World Fact Book that China has 40 million more males than females.

The question remains: Can anything overcome tradition and reverse China’s gender imbalance? The answer in China’s rural communities where traditional attitudes about having a baby boy remain firmly in place, is probably not. In rural communities sons remain the equivalent of a social safety net. Their farm labor provides a retirement pension for their parents and they provide living and medical assistance to their parents in old age. In large cities like Beijing, however, urban parents are starting to ask themselves, “Why not a baby girl?”

Although an increasing number of well-educated urbanites cite social ills created by gender imbalance as their primary reason to hope for a baby girl, economic reasons also play a role in changing the preferences of metropolitan residents. 

Property prices in China rose rapidly from 2000 to 2008, landing its cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong — at the top of the world’s list of completely unaffordable places to live. In Chinese megacities such as Beijing, parents bear the burden of trying to pay for their own housing, and if they have a son, they must also find a way to buy him an ever-more-expensive home. The surplus of men has made competition for brides fierce, so parents must do what they can to give their son a competitive edge. China’s most popular TV dating program, Fei Cheng Wu Rao, provides a visual representation of the challenges men face in getting a women to go on a date. If a male contestant does not make enough money each month, drive a nice car, and have a good education, then they can leave the stage rejected by all 24 female contestants.

During the time I lived in Beijing from spring 2011 until fall 2012, my friend’s father commented that my parents must be grateful I was a girl. He explained that raising his son in Beijing was expensive. For a girl to even take a second glance at his son, he would have to buy his son an apartment, maybe even a car. If the thought of trying to pay 25,075 yuan per square meter (about $4,000 per square meter) for a tiny apartment in Beijing made one father change his attitude about having a female child, I guarantee it has changed the attitudes of thousands more.

Taking the hypothesis that increasing housing prices correlate with an increase in the economic attractiveness of having a baby girl, let's look at the two charts below.

Sex ratio at birth, 2010

Sex ratio at birth, urban and rural, 1982–2010

We can take from these charts two important findings:

1) In the first figure, we can see that Shanghai and Beijing, China’s first and second largest cities respectively, have a nearly normal biological sex ratio, with 106 boys born for every 100 girls. Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, all located in Guangdong Province, also have lower sex-at-birth ratios. This could signal that in megacities, parents are selecting to have girls or no children at all in order to relieve their financial burden.

It is important to note that Xinjiang and Tibet are regions predominated by minority populations. Minority women are allowed up to three births in their lifetime. As a result the rate of sex-selective abortions is lower in minority communities.

2) In the second figure, we can see that the sex ratio at birth of rural areas has always been higher than that of urban areas. As mentioned before, property prices increased steadily from 2000 to 2008. Looking at figure two, we can see that as property prices rise, the urban-rural disparity increases. It then decreases markedly in 2010. Interestingly this decrease coincides with the institution of market cooling measures, which by the last quarter of 2011 allowed housing prices to decline.

Admittedly the influx of Western ideas of gender equality, higher levels of education, and greater employment opportunities for women have contributed to declining rates of sex-selective abortions in China’s largest cities. However, housing prices play an irrefutable role in lowering or increasing the sex at birth ratio.

With housing prices remain lower compared to those of the early 2000s, and will we again see an increase in the sex at birth ratio? Will wealthy, urban parents circumvent strict government regulations and obtain sex-selective abortions?

The bottom line is that until housing prices are stabilized in large cities and old habits and beliefs change, the battle for China’s baby girls will continue to revolve in large part around urban housing prices.