I’m going to go out on a limb and state unequivocally that I think civil liberties and gender equality are Very Good Things. All else equal, I’d much rather live in a society in which freedom of speech is protected and women have all of the rights and opportunities afforded to men.
I bring this up because a common assumption that guides much of global economic policy is that as developing countries get richer, they will start valuing these qualities as well. There’s a belief that regardless of the sequencing, political modernization will not trail too far behind economic modernization. Even in anomalous countries like Singapore, for example, there are trends suggesting that richer societies start demanding all those political and personal freedoms that many in the West take for granted. Crudely and simply put, a guiding assumption behind much Western policymaking (as well as many foes of the West writ large) is that modernization = Westernization.
I bring this up because China and India are, at the present moment, trying to prove this assumption is wrong. China has been getting very rich very fast, and yet the Chinese government seems more repressive than ever. So much for political liberties.
In some ways, India is even more troubling, as the New York Times’ Jim Yardley report:
India’s increasing wealth and improving literacy are apparently contributing to a national crisis of “missing girls,” with the number of sex-selective abortions up sharply among more affluent, educated families during the past two decades, according to a new study.
The study found the problem of sex-selective abortions of girls has spread steadily across India after once being confined largely to a handful of conservative northern states. Researchers also found that women from higher-income, better-educated families were far more likely than poorer women to abort a girl, especially during a second pregnancy if the firstborn was a girl….
The study, being published in the British medical journal The Lancet, is the latest evidence of India’s worsening imbalance in the ratio of boys to girls. The 2011 Indian census found 914 girls for every 1,000 boys among children 6 six or younger, the lowest ratio of girls since the country gained independence in 1947. The new study estimated that 4 million to 12 million selective abortions of girls have occurred in India in the past three decades….
Dr. Prabhat Jha, a lead author of the study, noted that the use of sex-selective abortions expanded throughout the country as the use of ultrasound equipment became more widespread. Typically, women from wealthier, better-educated families are more likely to undergo an ultrasound, Mr. Jha said, and researchers found that these families are far more likely to abort a girl if the firstborn is a daughter.
“This is really a phenomenon of the educated and the wealthy that we are seeing in India,” said Mr. Jha, director of the Center for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto.
Census data has already confirmed that the problem has accelerated since 2001. The 2011 census found about 7.1 million fewer girls than boys under the age of 6, compared with a gap of roughly 6 million girls a decade earlier (emphasis added).
The study can be accessed at The Lancet‘s website (registration required). In an accompanying commentary, S.V. Subramanian and Daniel Corsi explain exactly why this is so friggin’ depressing:
The steady decline in the ratio is surprising, and counterintuitive, in view of India’s progress in recent decades in improving the levels of female literacy and increases in income per person….
the value of the analysis by Jha and colleagues is mainly independent confirmation of two important aspects of the sex ratio in India that have been reported previously with different data. The first is that sex imbalance at birth seems to be particularly concentrated in households with high education and wealth. This pattern suggests that dominance of the son-preference norm is unlikely to be offset, at least in the short term, by socioeconomic development. Second is that the overall problem of sex imbalance seems to arise throughout India, including in Kerala, which has often been characterised as a model state for social development and gender equality. The problem of sex imbalance seems to be a function of socioeconomic status, not geography.
As India gets richer, this problem will only get worse.
Now, this might be one of those "it’s always darhest before the dawn" kind of trends, in which after a certain wealth threshhold, trends will shift back towards a more classical liberal direction. Maybe. I don’t know, and anyone else who tells you that they know is bulls**tting you. Based on this study, however, the question of whether China and India will ever embrace liberal political and cultural norms is not going to go away anytime soon.
What do you think?
Tags: China, gender, global political economy, Globalization, India, liberalism
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