Volume 40 - Article 13 | Pages 319–358 Editor's Choice

Population sex imbalance in China before the One-Child Policy

By Kimberly Singer Babiarz, Paul Ma, Shige Song, Grant Miller

Print this page  Facebook  Twitter


Date received:10 Jan 2018
Date published:21 Feb 2019
Word count:6345
Keywords:China, fertility, missing girls, sex ratio
Additional files:readme.40-13 (text file, 1 kB)
 demographic-research.40-13 (zip file, 14 kB)


Objective: Most research on population sex imbalance in China has focused on the One-Child Policy era. However, because much of China’s fertility decline occurred during the 1970s, we investigate the possibility that sex ratios began rising during this period (as predicted by theory) before the One-Child Policy.

Results: Analyzing sex ratios between 1960 and 1987 by birth order and sibship sex composition, we find that among the subset of couples expected to have the greatest demand for sons (those at higher parities without previous sons), sex ratios at birth reached 115–121 boys per 100 girls during the 1970s – implying approximately 840,000 to 1,100,000 girls missing from Chinese birth cohorts during the 1970s. Importantly, these results do not appear to be driven by differential under-reporting of living girls, or instances of adoption. Given the absence of ultrasound technologies prior to 1979, they imply the presence of postnatal sex selection in China during the 1970s.

Contribution: Our work makes several important contributions to existing literature. First, we focus on the subset of couples among whom the demand for sons is predicted to be the strongest: higher parity couples not yet having a boy. Second, we estimate sex ratios by single year of age (from birth to age 4), distinguishing differential rates of infant death from more gradual neglect of girls as they age throughout childhood. Third, we combine graphical and multivariate statistical analyses to test for meaningfully imbalanced sex ratios. Finally, we measure potential irregularities in the reporting of living girls, including the adoption of girls, and we generate new estimates of unreported females.

Author's Affiliation

Kimberly Singer Babiarz - Stanford University, United States of America [Email]
Paul Ma - University of Minnesota Twin Cities, United States of America [Email]
Shige Song - City University of New York, United States of America [Email]
Grant Miller - Stanford University, United States of America [Email]

Other articles by the same author/authors in Demographic Research

» The impact of sent-down movement on Chinese women's age at first marriage
Volume 34 - Article 28

» Prenatal malnutrition and subsequent foetal loss risk: Evidence from the 1959-1961 Chinese famine
Volume 29 - Article 26

Most recent similar articles in Demographic Research

» The role of premarital cohabitation in the timing of first birth in China
Volume 45 - Article 8    | Keywords: China, fertility

» Different places, different stories: A study of the spatial heterogeneity of county-level fertility in China
Volume 37 - Article 16    | Keywords: China, fertility

» Very long range global population scenarios to 2300 and the implications of sustained low fertility
Volume 28 - Article 39    | Keywords: China, fertility

» Masculine sex ratios, population age structure and the potential spread of HIV in China
Volume 22 - Article 3    | Keywords: China, sex ratio

» Subnational variations in births and marriages during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Korea
Volume 48 - Article 30    | Keywords: fertility