Using data from a survey of deaths of children less than 5 years old conducted in 1997 in a county in Shaanxi Province, China, this paper examines gender differences in child survival in contemporary rural China. First, excess female child mortality in the county in 1994–96 is described, followed by an analysis of the mechanisms whereby the excess mortality takes place, and the underlying social, economic and cultural factors behind it. Excess female child mortality in this county is probably caused primarily by discrimination against girls in curative health care rather than in preventive health care or food and nutrition. Although discrimination occurs in all kinds of families and communities, discrimination itself is highly selective, and is primarily against girls with some specific characteristics. It is argued that the excess mortality of girls is caused fundamentally by the strong son preference in traditional Chinese culture, but exacerbated by the government-guided family planning programme and regulations. This suggests that it is crucial to raise the status of girls within the family and community so as to mitigate the pressures to discriminate against girls in China’s low fertility regime. Finally, the possible policy options to improve female child survival in contemporary rural China are discussed.
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