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Does the marriage market sex ratio affect parental sex selection? Evidence from the Chinese census


Recent increases in the (male/female) sex ratio at birth in eastern Asia are thought to be associated with a preference for sons and to result from parental sex selection. However, males are less likely to marry and to have offspring as the ratio increases, and that decreases the expected number of grandchildren. Using data from the 2000 Chinese census, we test whether the sex ratio in the marriage market has an effect on the gender of subsequent births and hence on the sex ratio of the birth cohort. The slow population growth caused by the Great Famine in the early 1960s and the quick recovery that followed produced major changes in the sex ratio for those of marriageable age two decades later. We estimate that an increase of 1 % in the number of marriageable males relative to females, the marriage market sex ratio, would decrease the probability of having a son by 0.02 percentage points. That implies that the Great Famine, which occurred around 1960, led to an increase in the early 1980s of 5.8 extra male births per 100 females.

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  1. Using model life tables that reflect mortality conditions in the “West region” almost four decades ago, Coale (1991) finds that in a hypothetical population growing steadily at 2 % annually, the ratio would favour men (1.022), while in a stationary population, it would favour women (0.997).

  2. Bhaskar and Gupta (2007) document the sex ratio in India based on the Indian censuses from 1961 to 2001.

  3. See Edlund (1999) for a summary.

  4. When parents detect the gender of the fetus and attempt to change it through aborting and trying again, the parents will only have one half chance to have their desired gender. Let c depict the cost of an abortion, and a second trial, Bhaskar (2011) shows that the cost of changing a child’s gender with certainty is 2c in such a case.

  5. An example is the American Convention on Human Rights, also known as the Pact of San José, signed by 24 Latin American countries in 1969; it states that rights exist from the moment of conception. It came into force in 1978.

  6. We assume that \( \overline{v} \) is a constant. While the net gain from marriage would respond to changes in the equilibrium sex ratio, the result does not change qualitatively when it is assumed to be constant; see Yang (2015) for details.

  7. In China, an individual takes legal responsibilities as an adult at age 18 or, for those working, as young as age 16.

  8. In rural areas, couples were permitted to have a second child if the first child is female.

  9. Individuals between the ages of 0 and 9 in the 2000 census are excluded because of apparent underreporting: The numbers at each age between 10 and 19 in the 2010 census are notably larger than the numbers at each age between 0 and 9 in the 2000 census, and the shortfall is greater for girls than for boys; see Chan et al. (2013).

  10. Rao (1993) uses a measure similar to a t ± 9 measure in the Indian context.

  11. The sex ratios are also calculated for year-province cells and year-city cells. While the year-city cell approach has a large enough sample size to derive accurate sex ratio measures, there are two issues. First, migration for the purpose of marriage is much more common among cities within a province than between provinces. Second, in the 2000 census, we observe only the birth province (not the birth city) so that the city-level sex ratio cannot be matched to individuals who moved after birth. In any case, regressions using the alternative ratios produce similar results.

  12. Chu (2001) finds that the ultrasound scan is the main technology used in China to determine the sex of a fetus, thereby making sex-selective abortions possible. However, the technology was not generally available until the 1980s. As she notes, “China manufactured its first ultrasound B-machine in 1979. Since 1982, both Chinese-manufactured and imported ultrasound B-machines have been introduced on a large scale. In 1987, over 13,000 such machines were being used in hospitals, on average about six for each county” (p. 260). The interaction of MMSR with year1982 gives a measure of the effect of the marriage market sex ratio when the ultrasound technology is available.

  13. We have not found a definitive statement, but a report in the China Daily is 2007 stated that “Except in Central China’s Henan Province, couples can have two children if they are both only children” (Guan, Xiaofeng. “More people Free to have more child.” China Daily, Nov. 7, 2007, Accessed 31 October, 2014). That suggests that the policy was made at the province level rather than by the central government and that it was in effect before 2007.


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The authors would like to thank the anonymous referees for helpful comments and suggestions. Thanks to Mike Veall for very helpful comments. Li recognizes financial support from the Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Higher Education Institutions (PAPD). Yang recognizes financial support from the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR). PAPD and CLIR had no role in the research.

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Correspondence to Wei Yang.

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Li, X., Chan, M.W.L., Spencer, B.G. et al. Does the marriage market sex ratio affect parental sex selection? Evidence from the Chinese census. J Popul Econ 29, 1063–1082 (2016).

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  • Parental sex selection
  • Marriage squeeze
  • Marriage market sex ratio
  • Missing women

JEL Classification

  • J11
  • J12
  • J13