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​Where 30 Million 'Missing' Girls in China Actually Went

A 2016 study "discovered" millions of missing girls lost to China's one-child policy, and the results also shine a light on China's propensity to favor sons over daughters.
A frowning baby of Asian descent wearing white clothing
Photo by Xunbin Pan via Stocksy

Over the last few years, China's problem of gender imbalance has been widely reported by media outlets. Experts determined that anywhere from 30 to 60 million girls were missing from the population, thanks to the country's one-child policy originally introduced in 1979. According to their 2010 census, there were 118 males for every 100 females born in China, whereas the global average is 105 females. To the horror of economists and sociologists, two important questions arose as a result: What happened to those "missing girls?" And what will happen to the world's most populous country with such a skewed sex ratio at birth?


A study published in China Quarterly, though, suggests those numbers are probably exaggerated. "People think 30 million girls are missing from the population. That's the population of California, and they think they're just gone," said John Kennedy, associate professor of political science at University of Kansas and one of the study's authors, in a press release.

Read more: Inside China's Last Matriarchy

Kennedy and his colleague Shi Yaojiang of Shaanxi Normal University first became interested in investigating China's "missing girls" and its high sex ratio at birth (SRB) when they met a farmer in northern Shaanxi province in the 90s. They noticed he introduced a young son and oldest daughter by name, "but he presented the middle daughter as the 'non-existent one' with a smile and a wink." (By this time, the government had changed its one-child policy to allow families to have a second child if the first was a girl.) It turned out that the oldest and youngest were registered with the government; the middle child was not. Because of this, they wondered if more people had simply chosen not to report their children.

In order to find out if that was the case, researchers analyzed data from the China Statistical Year Books and the last four official national censuses: 1982, 1990, 2000, and 2010. To determine the actual number of missing females, they used the backward projection method; they compared the number of children born in 1990 with the data of 20-year-olds in the 2010 census.


"The data show that our initial observations of unregistered girls in 1996 and after 2000 were not unusual cases but rather they pointed to a more widespread phenomenon of underreporting female (and male) births across rural China," the study concludes. "The census data show a dramatic increase in reported females after the age of ten, and in particular after the age of 15. This suggests a large number of young women are not being officially registered until their teens."

Between 1990 and 2010, researchers estimate there were roughly 15 million missing girls, which includes female death rates and international adoptions. They discovered approximately 11 million had simply gone unreported; that means another four million or so were probably lost to female infanticide (7 percent) and sex-selective abortion (20 percent).

One of the reasons so many girls were able to go unreported, or were reported later in life, researchers argued, is because local government officials lacked the capacity or willingness to enforce family planning policies.

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Families who had more than one child faced fines and other punishments. Rather than face these repercussions, the study reports, some families turned to sex-selective abortion and female infanticide (the practice of denying health care to baby girls so they die in their first year). Previous research had suggested 8.5 million girls born between the years 1980 and 2000 are truly missing because of these practices, but many scholars think that number could be much higher.

Last year, China announced it would abolish its one-child policy.

While the current study "discovered" millions of missing girls, it also shines a light on China's propensity to favor sons over daughters, and how that may be changing. "Traditionally," the authors write, "daughters are considered to be 'born into another's family.' As a result, there is no social or economic incentive for families, especially in the countryside, to have daughters." But the fact that so many families may be hiding daughters suggest that perhaps these girls have "increased their value."