If a system of death camps were set up in the United States
of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany,
one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps
in any medium-sized American town…
This is the quote from TV interview with the prominent American social psychologist Stanley Milgram. One of his most important works were the “shock” studies of obedience to authority. After running a series of experiments with different sets of participants, Milgram came to conclusion that in any country and any nation it is possible to create certain conditions in which people will be able to do absolutely senseless and cruel things, such as war-time atrocities.
The practical value of such studies lies in possibility to recognize and prevent the social patterns in which we – people – can show our evil side.
Unfortunately, with its one-child policy, today’s China has created “favorable” conditions for the expression of other cruelty deeply ingrained in human nature – ability to kill our own babies. In this way China became a huge stage for verification of another social theory. I am talking about research in the field of infanticide made by the famous biologist and anthropologist Sarah Hrdy. Let me first introduce the main aspects of Hrdy’ theory and then show how they apply to China.
Early in her scientific career Sarah Hrdy became interested in the topic of infanticide in different species of animals. Having an expertise in primatology she traveled to India for field observations of langur monkeys. To her surprise she discovered that in some cases langur newborns are at high risk to be killed by their own mothers (which was quite a shocking finding for the species with slow reproductive rate).
However, the longer Hrdy researched this subject, the more clear was her conclusion that infanticide is an important adaptive mechanism that can be observed in most mammals species including human beings. Moreover, on the larger scale survival was possible only for the species in which mothers in certain circumstances were able to cold-heartedly kill their own offspring.
For primates the mentioned circumstances are the combination of four following conditions:
1) female’s young age
2) child’s low weight at birth
3) gender of child (more exactly – if the gender is not desirable)
4) probability that nurturing the child would only decrease the survival chances for both mother and the child
How are all these things related to China? Well… anyone who had lived in China or followed after Chinese news for a while, knows about the worrying gender imbalance resulting in the excess of young males of marriageable age. An unnaturally high proportion of boys among live births in China (1.19/1 vs. normal 1.05/1) proves that such imbalance is primarily caused by sex-selective abortions.
Although abortions is not quite a human means of population control – yet most people won’t put them in the same category with infanticide. In this regard it’s interesting to note that in China the proportion of boys in the cohort of 5 years old children is even higher than at birth (!!!). This tendency is clearly reflected in the results of national censuses showing how the proportions of infant mortality rate by gender “unexpectedly” changed in males’ favor from the census of 1982 to the census of 2000 (see for example the report on Country Gender Assessment by Asian Development Bank).
It is known, however, that in the absence of external intervention the mortality of males is higher than mortality of females in all age groups. Thus, there should be some “external intervention” that results in the excess of Chinese girls’ deaths from birth to five years old.
Of course, killing girls by inserting needles into their head (as “kind” grandparents from Chengdu tried to do) is a little bit risky. But there is no doubt that parents have enough power to achieve the same goal in a more subtle manner.
Let’s take another look at 4 premises of infanticide formulated by Sarah Hrdy. Infant’s low weight and mother’s young age are the variables that can be present in any population albeit with different incidence. The third factor is the gender preference making either boys or girls less wanted. And as in any agrarian society, China’s preference for sons (especially in its rural parts) is not an exception.
It is, however, China’s one child policy that adds the fourth crucial component into equation, turning it into a huge natural lab for anthropologists and socio-biologists.
And you know what? Indirectly, China’s government recognizes the negative consequences of one child policy. Otherwise, why would it allow rural Chinese families to have a second baby if the first one is girl?
But I can only fear for second baby’s fate if it appears to be a girl again…
Crystal Tao is the author of LoveLoveChina