China’s ‘Missing’ Girls

August 18, 2008 Updated: August 22, 2008

Infanticide and abandonment are not on the radar screen

Children hold hands while walking along a street in the ancient city of Pingyao, in northern China's Shanxi province. China's skewed sex ratio has been one consequence of its one-child policy, as many couples, particularly in rural areas, prefer a boy and (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
Children hold hands while walking along a street in the ancient city of Pingyao, in northern China's Shanxi province. China's skewed sex ratio has been one consequence of its one-child policy, as many couples, particularly in rural areas, prefer a boy and (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
With the start of the Olympics in Beijing, allow me to divert your attention away from the tracks, courts and pools and take you on a journey to China’s backyard.

Imagine a family abandoning a three-year-old girl by a river because a boy has just been born, or an infant left under a tree in a field because he’s disabled, or a newborn buried in a pile of tomatoes on market day because he’s the third child in his family.

Imagine a state-run rat-infested institution in which babies lucky enough to be found are fed diluted rice water three times a day, state institutions with no heat, running water, equipment or medical care. Imagine all that and you still cannot begin to grasp the horror of infanticide in China.

None of this was on my radar screen when I prepared in 1995 to travel to Beijing for the International Women’s Conference. But when the BBC aired a documentary, The Dying Rooms, by Brian Woods and Kate Blewett, the tragedy of China's children hijacked my attention.

It took me a few more years to research and to write China Doll, a story about an American pop singer on a concert tour in China when a baby is thrust into her arms. What I had not expected when the novel was finally published in 2006 was how little attention the subject was receiving a decade after the exposure.

The organizations that had published detailed, scathing reports in ‘96, ’97 and ’98 about China's infanticide and the high death rate in the country’s orphanages had not followed up. While in the late ‘90s the world documented that what the Chinese had once referred to as “surplus population” destined to die through deliberate neglect, a decade later human rights organizations focused on the myriad abuses in China, but not on the first right—the right to live.

Had the problem disappeared? After my phone calls and e-mails to World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch/Asia, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department received evasive responses or none at all, I set out to find out the extent of the problem.

Back in ’95, when traveling in China, I interviewed old women, always asking them about birth-control in their younger years, when famine claimed the lives of millions. More than once the answer was, “When I had a baby, I smothered it with a pillow,” or “My husband drowned the baby in the river,” all reminiscent of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Had China's generations-old tolerance and practice of infanticide finally ceased?

It took me all of three minutes to discover that infanticide had taken a turn to the worse.

Checking UNICEF’s 2005 birth figures for China (presumably supplied by the Chinese communist regime,) I superimposed the boy-girl ratio reported by China's Ministry of Civil Affairs. The simple math showed that 1,731,000 girls went missing in 2005 alone. The shocking figure failed to reflect boys born with birth defects or of late birth-order and therefore “out of quota” children. The number of these “missing” boys was canceled by a matching number of girls, and the record of these dead children forever lost.

My next step was to use the moderate earnings from the sales of China Doll to hire Chinese- and Mandarin-language researchers to dig deeper. “Get me anything that can be quantified,” was my directive: number of orphanages, number of babies, budgets. Within days, with my previous marketing background with an emphasis on statistics, I was able to piece a picture that stretched my credulity.

I learned that since the 1979 one-child policy was set, the Chinese’s tradition of preference for boys has put girls more in peril than ever before. Among the proven 1.7 million girls missing each year, sex-selection abortion is only one of the several gruesome ways in which girls in China go "missing."

Outright killing—by family members or state health-care providers—is rampant. Hundreds of thousands of girls live "illegally" with no record of their existence and are therefore not entitled to schooling or medical care. Later on, with no possibility of a job or housing, their only option is servitude and sexual slavery under the guise of marriage.

A GIRL'S VALUE: Writer Talia Carner expresses outrage at the sad plight of baby females in China. (www.taliacarner.com)  ()
A GIRL'S VALUE: Writer Talia Carner expresses outrage at the sad plight of baby females in China. (www.taliacarner.com) ()

Recently, HBO aired a second documentary by Brian Woods and Kate Blewett, “China’s Stolen Children.” It depicted the kidnapping of children in China and their selling to childless couples. It also mentioned couples seeking to raise a girl as a future bride for their only son.

Last year I had the opportunity to present my findings about China's “gendercide”—the singling out of girls for death—at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. My presentation demonstrated that by the time population growth in China reached a plateau in 2050, 133 million females would have disappeared.

The subject of China's missing girls surfaces in the context of the over 40 million bachelors unable to find brides. But the flip side of this phenomenon is that the vacuum in marriageable women only increases sex crimes in the form of rape, kidnapping, trafficking and sexual slavery in forced “marriages.”

With the Olympics in Beijing in full swing, we have a chance to cry out our collective indignation and beg the thousands of journalists descending upon China to poke in and around orphanages.

We can educate ourselves about the issues and ask our local and national media to place infanticide high on their priority list. Let’s ask our representatives tough questions and demand candid answers. The U.S. State Department’s thousands of people in China can do a lot more than I did at my desk.

The People's Republic of China is sensitive to criticism and to “saving face.” Let’s exploit this one weakness to shine the Olympics torch onto China’s backyard and change the fate of at least some of the hundreds of thousands girls expected to die this year, and millions more next year and in the many years to come.

Talia Carner is the author of China Doll published by Mecox Hudson. For more info, visit www.TaliaCarner.com