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    When Being Female Is Fatal

    A preference for sons continues in China despite changing gender relations — and in some cases, the result is murder.

    Gao still remembers the dreadful night last November when she was called into Rudong Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where she works in the administrative office, for an inconceivable emergency: A cardboard box containing the corpse of a newborn girl had been found on a staircase in the obstetrics department. 

    What followed further shocked the staff at the county-level hospital in Nantong, in the eastern province of Jiangsu. A police investigation revealed that the baby, a healthy 4-day-old girl, had been murdered — trampled to death by her own grandmother, 54-year-old Zhang Aifen, a Nantong resident. 

    Although the prosecution did not state that the woman’s motive for the killing was related to the infant’s gender, Zhang had previously asked a doctor at the hospital if anyone could adopt the newborn girl because she already had a granddaughter. Last month, one year after the murder, Zhang was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 10 years in jail. 

    News of the murder horrified millions around China, and many felt the sentence was too lenient. “It won’t serve as a warning or change people’s preferences for boys,” Gao told Sixth Tone, declining to reveal her full name for fear of repercussions for the hospital. 

    Others were furious. “Even a tiger will not eat its cubs; how can these people who kill their own babies escape severe punishment?” screenwriter and television commentator Chen Lan posted on her Weibo microblog. 

    It’s no secret that traditional Chinese culture values sons over daughters. Deep-rooted patriarchal values have been blamed for the population’s severe gender imbalance: Up to 30 million more boys have been born than girls over the last three decades — though a recent study suggests that the actual disparity is smaller, with many female children going unregistered. 

    But in much of the country, especially among younger generations, attitudes have changed. Gender equality is increasingly prized, and public attention to sexism has grown tremendously. “Raising healthy girls is closely linked to family happiness, social progress, and national development,” said Wang Peian, deputy head of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, in October.

    “Very few people in my hometown believe the stereotype that boys are better than girls,” said Chen Nan, a 24-year-old Nantong native. “With young people born after 1990 starting to become parents, the era of valuing boys over girls is officially coming to an end.”

    Laws have also begun to reflect the notion that a preference for sons should be consigned to history. Since 2001, China has banned hospitals from providing fetal sex testing or sex-selective abortion. People do continue to find out their baby’s sex through illegal means, and some still terminate pregnancies on the basis of gender. Yet while the gender birth ratio in 2015 remained skewed — 113 boys for every 100 girls — the gap has narrowed since 2004, when the ratio peaked at 121 to 100.

    Patriarchal values are losing influence as social and economic structures change. Boys were once valued for performing manual labor, carrying on the family name, and providing for their parents in old age. Now, many parents feel that daughters can be just as dependable as sons, if not more capable and caring. A 2015 study by Renmin and Peking universities that surveyed more than 4,300 families in 10 Chinese cities found that parents with daughters were happier than those with sons.

    This cultural shift has formed the backdrop for widespread outrage over the Nantong murder and the leniency of the 10-year prison sentence that Nantong Intermediate People’s Court gave Zhang. Homicide convictions typically see jail sentences of at least 10 years in China and can be punished by the death penalty, but those who kill infants often receive lighter sentences. Earlier in 2016, a grandfather on the outskirts of Shanghai was sentenced to seven years in jail for killing his infant grandson, who had a cleft palate, with a lethal injection. 

    Gu Jianbing, director of the public relations office of Nantong Intermediate People’s Court, argued that Zhang’s sentence was reasonable. “If the murder had happened after the family returned to their home in the rural village, her family could have never reported the case to the police,” he said. “They could have just buried the baby secretly, and the grandma wouldn’t have had to serve a single day in jail.”

    Gu said that while many online commenters accused the court of giving Zhang too light a sentence, the decision was based on Zhang’s troubled background and aimed to avoid making things worse for the family. According to Gu, Zhang is an illiterate woman from a village that borders the Yellow Sea in Rudong County, Nantong. She and her husband made more than 200,000 yuan ($28,780) raising hairy crabs in 2001 — a small fortune back then — but later lost all of the money in an investment scam. 

    The financial loss dealt a serious blow to Zhang’s mental health, said Gu, adding that the exhaustion from taking care of her daughter-in-law, who had just given birth, could have triggered her extreme actions — though the police investigation had stated that she was in full possession of her mental faculties at the time of the murder.

    Beijing-based lawyer Li Xiaolin said he found Gu’s explanation ridiculous and asked if the woman would have done the same to an infant boy. “Her history of mental illness should not be taken into consideration in this case, after the police stated that the woman was clearheaded when killing the infant,” said Li, the former secretary-general of the Beijing Lawyers Association’s criminal-defense committee.

    “Her family can forgive her, but the law cannot, because justice should be free of emotion,” Li said. He believes Zhang should have received a life sentence for killing a blameless infant in such a brutal manner on account of her gender. “The verdict could give the false impression that killing a baby girl is just a minor crime that will lead to a light penalty. But it’s not! All lives are equal, no matter whether they are boys or girls, babies or adults,” Li told Sixth Tone.

    The two-child policy that came into effect in January could complicate things further. According to Professor Chen Youhua from the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Nanjing University, families who already have a daughter are more likely to try for a second child. He warns that the lingering preference for boys, combined with the two-child policy, could cause the nation’s gender birth ratio to grow more unbalanced again. 

    “Gender discrimination continues to exist across the country, and Nantong is no exception,” said Chen, who is from Nantong himself.

    While cases of infanticide are unlikely to increase — even among those who still hold fast to patriarchal values — sex-selective abortion persists, despite being criminalized. “Killings of girls normally happen when they are early-stage fetuses, given the technologies available,” hospital employee Gao said.

    Chen Xiaobo, another Nantong native, believes there is little anyone can do to shake the preference for boys that persists among older generations.

    “It’s just useless trying to change their minds. Older people are simply stubborn,” the 30-year-old woman said. “But this group of people is growing fewer and fewer, given their age, and such values will eventually die out.”

    With contributions from Wang Lianzhang. 

    (Header image: An infant girl is cradled by a nurse at a state-run orphanage in Changfeng County, Hefei City, Anhui province, Dec. 11, 2012. The baby was abandoned by her parents at the entrance to a highway. Yu Junjie/VCG)