Tsinghua University first-year student Mia Wang has confidence to spare.
Asked what her home city of Benxi in northeastern China is famous for, she flashes a cool smile and says: “Producing excellence. Like me.”
A Communist Youth League member at one of China’s top science universities, she boasts enviable skills in calligraphy, piano, flute and ping pong.
Such gifted young women are increasingly common in China’s cities and make up the most educated generation of women in Chinese history. Never have so many been in college or graduate school and never has their ratio to male students been more balanced.
To thank for this, experts say, is three decades of steady Chinese economic growth, heavy government spending on education and a third, surprising, factor: the one-child policy.
In 1978, women made up only 24.2 percent of the student population at Chinese colleges and universities. By 2009, nearly half of China’s full-time undergraduates were women and 47 percent of graduate students were female, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
In India, by comparison, women make up 37.6 percent of those enrolled at institutes of higher education, according to government statistics.
Since 1979, China’s family planning rules have barred nearly all urban families from having a second child in a bid to stem population growth. With no male heir competing for resources, parents have spent more on their daughters’ education and well-being, a groundbreaking shift after centuries of discrimination.
“They’ve basically gotten everything that used to only go to the boys,” said Vanessa Fong, a Harvard University professor and expert on China’s family planning policy.
Wang and many of her female classmates grew up with tutors and allowances, after-school classes and laptop computers. Though she is just one generation off the farm, she carries an iPad and a debit card, and shops for the latest fashions online.
Her purchases arrive at Tsinghua, where Wang’s all-girls dorm used to be jokingly called a “Panda House,” because women were so rarely seen on campus. They now make up a third of the student body, up from one-fifth a decade ago.
“In the past, girls were raised to be good wives and mothers,” Fong said. “They were going to marry out anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal if they didn’t want to study.”
Not so anymore. Fong says today’s urban Chinese parents “perceive their daughters as the family’s sole hope for the future,” and try to help them to outperform their classmates, regardless of gender.
Some demographers argue that China’s fertility rate would have fallen sharply even without the one-child policy because economic growth tends to reduce family size. In that scenario, Chinese girls may have gotten more access to education anyway, though the gains may have been more gradual.
Crediting the one-child policy with improving the lives of women is jarring, given its history and how it has harmed women in other ways. Facing pressure to stay under population quotas, overzealous family planning officials have resorted to forced sterilizations and late-term abortions, sometimes within weeks of delivery, although such practices are illegal.
The birth limits are also often criticized for encouraging sex-selective abortions in a son-favoring society. Chinese traditionally prefer boys because they carry on the family name and are considered better earners.