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Opinion: Population

China's Future with Fewer Females

Thanks to the one-child policy, first implemented in 1979-80, there is an unusual shortage of females in China. By 2020, there will be an estimated 40 million Chinese men who will not be able to find brides -- at least Chinese ones -- and in China, bachelors are extremely rare. So how might this play out, for both men and women? We asked Susan Greenhalgh, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, an expert on China's family planning policies and author, with Edwin A. Winckler, of Governing China's Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics (Stanford University Press, 2005) and Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng's China (forthcoming, University of California Press).
A poster outside a Birth Planning Office

A poster outside a Birth Planning Office in Yuncao Town, Anhui Province. The slogan reads, "To make the state rich and strong and your family happy, please carry out family planning."

Twenty-five years after China implemented its one-child policy, the unintended consequences are clear: Thanks to a sexist culture and the contemporary political economy, the world's most populous nation has the largest gender gap at birth. In 2000, for every 100 girls that were born, 120 boys were born, and in some poorer regions, there are twice as many boys as girls.

Fortunately, infanticide and abandonment of baby girls by Chinese parents desperate to have a son -- practices that have concerned Americans -- have become increasingly rare, but still the gender gap, now largely the result of sex-selective abortion, will have a profound impact on families, workplaces and the distribution of power in Chinese society. What does a population with a shortage of females mean for China's future? How will the masculinization of China affect global politics?

Many people believe that if women become rarer, in today's world, their social "value" will increase, leading to greater empowerment. But, unfortunately, when demographics are filtered through sexist cultures and economic and political influences, there can be complicated and unpredictable effects; in the case of China, an imbalance in the relative numbers of males and females can only be bad. Already a shortage of females (or an excess of males, depending on how you look at it) has caused a host of problems that no one -- not even China's leaders -- has thought much about. Informed speculation is the only way to envision what effects China's gender imbalance might produce in the decades to come.

Two Chinas, Two Worlds of Girlhood

China's entry into the global capitalist economy has brought growing -- indeed, glaring -- gaps between the haves and the have-nots: While millionaires in Shanghai drive around in their Mercedes, dirt-poor villagers in remote areas lack even running water. Most of the haves live in or near China's cities, especially along the eastern seaboard, while the have-nots live in the villages, particularly in the interior of the country. With the emergence of two Chinas has come the emergence of two worlds of girlhood, with important implications for girls' life chances.
Young girl leans against a wall

Young girl in Dayang Village, Anhui Province.

For many city girls in the "rich China," the one-child policy has been a boon. To their parents, who have wage jobs, secure incomes and pensions, boys are no longer needed to provide labor, income and old-age support -- the concrete economic bases for traditional son preference. In well-to-do, urban families, girls are now considered as good as boys. Indeed, for many parents, daughters are deemed better than sons because they are emotionally closer to their parents and more willing to provide personal care in old age. In the competition to produce the perfect "quality" child, city girls are now given all the benefits, from good educations and health care, and all the extras, from piano lessons to private tutors in English, that once would have been the prerogative of boys. As the major beneficiaries of the one-child policy, these urban girls are well equipped to prosper in the modern globalizing economy and society of China's future. This will surely continue into the future.

But for many village girls in the "poor China" the future looks more bleak. Although female infanticide and abandonment are now rare, prenatal sex-determination followed by sex-selective abortion are now a normal part of the culture of reproduction in vast swaths of rural China. In some areas up to 90 percent of second pregnancies that are female end in abortion. Girls who are allowed to live still fare better than they used to, with more education and better health care, but often they lose these privileges if younger brothers are born.

Fortunately, even in the countryside, traditions of gender bias in the family are now changing. As sons have become more mobile, many have abandoned their rural parents, reneging on their obligation to provide old-age support. Like their urban counterparts before them, parents in some villages are just now beginning to treat their daughters as surrogate sons, investing in their educations and health care so that they will be able to support them well in old age. This trend is likely to continue, boding well for rural-born girls in the future.

A Growing Marriage Crisis, a Growing Market in Women

In China, even more so than in the United States, marriage is essential to being accepted as a member of society. Now, we're seeing the first generation from the one-child policy come of marriageable age and facing a shortage of brides and a surplus of grooms.

In this male-preponderant society, the vast majority of women who wish to marry will be able to do so, but men will not be so fortunate. By around 2010, demographers estimate, the marriage market for first marriages will be seriously unbalanced, and within decades tens of millions will be unable to find brides. Rich men will have no trouble attracting brides (and mistresses), but growing numbers of poor, illiterate village men will not be able to marry, as women take the opportunity to "marry up." Statistics already illustrate the trend: In 2000, 4 percent of all men aged 40 had never married, while for men with the lowest level of schooling, the figure was dramatically higher at 27 percent.
In recent years, clandestine smuggling networks that rely on long-distance buying and selling of women and adolescent girls have emerged.

So how will these men obtain brides? Some will marry much younger women, while others will get wives through unorthodox means. For example, in border areas like Yunnan province, brides are imported from Vietnam and Myanmar. In poor interior provinces, the shortage of women has given rise to cases of informal polyandrous unions in which the wife of one man informally services several others. Then there's also marriage by capture. In recent years, clandestine smuggling networks that rely on long-distance buying and selling of women and adolescent girls have emerged. While forcible abduction does take place, usually girls are lured or purchased from their families in poor areas, promised jobs, and then transported long distances to villages where they are bought by poor men.

Despite the efforts of government agencies and women's groups to stop this kind of trafficking, escape from these often abusive situations is generally difficult because the "outside brides" are cut off from their families, and village society supports the husbands. In this scenario, both parties lose: women are trapped, and the men often end up feeling cheated of what they rightfully "own."

What about men who cannot find brides? Some have suggested that they will become roving bands of hooligans, others that they will join the army, promoting a more bellicose and aggressive China. These speculations of a more violent future, based on historical analogies from the late imperial period, seem misguided. More likely, the solutions will be more peaceful, if difficult. For example, unmarried men may live with their adult brothers or sisters, or they may form communities of their own in which new mutual support groups develop, or they may rely on prostitutes for sexual release. However this plays out, change will be difficult and will involve wrenching transformations in one of the most fundamental institutions of Chinese society.

Abandoning the One-Child Policy: Too Little, Too Late
Portrait of a mother with her daughter

Xiao Zhang with her daughter Dan Dan.

As the social problems stemming from the gender imbalance continue to mount, China's leaders will most certainly abandon the one-child policy. Already that policy, combined with the economic pressures associated with China's rapid development, has led fertility to fall to historic lows. Today the average number of children per woman is 1.55, a level more typical of the industrialized countries of Western Europe than of a poor developing country such as China. Today many Chinese scholars are lobbying the government to relax the one-child policy, and we can predict with some certainty that within 15 to 20 years China's leaders will succumb to social pressure and abandon the one-child policy. If Chinese policymaking history is any guide, they will move gradually, first shifting to a policy of two children for all and later eliminating all limits on childbearing.

This policy shift will be good for reproductive rights, but will it restore a more normal gender ratio at birth, about 105-106 boys to 100 girls? Unfortunately, the answer is no. For despite the continued existence of the one-child policy, increasingly people's childbearing is responding to the "invisible hand of the market," not government policy. Increasingly it is not the one-child policy, but rather entrenched gender discrimination in the wider economy, society and culture that lies behind the stubborn preference for sons among some groups. So are there other policy instruments the government can use to encourage people to want daughters? The answer is yes, but such measures are often difficult to institute, and their effectiveness remains unclear.

In recent years, China's government has been actively trying to enhance the well-being of girls and women with measures such as the "Action to Foster Girls" and a series of measures to promote women's all-round "human development." These and other policies -- such as closing the pay gap and ensuring equality in education -- while promising, will take a long time to work. In the meantime, perhaps for decades, China will have to make do with fewer females.

While some of the shortage can be made up by importing women from abroad, the major challenge China's government faces is to openly acknowledge the gender ramifications of the one-child policy. Thus far, the government has not done so. Instead of waiting for social problems to become social crises, the government must anticipate how the gender gap will play out in the society, economy and political system and find ways to help people adapt in the least disruptive ways possible.

When the "Little Emperors" Become the Nation's Leaders

China's one-child policy aimed not only to lower the birth rate, but also to create a new generation of "quality" singletons equipped to lead the country to a prosperous future. State and parental efforts to nurture this new generation have combined with an exploding commodity culture to produce the most materially and educationally privileged generation of young people in Chinese history. Yet the social and psychological costs have been steep. The focus of intense societal and familial attention, today's single children have become "little emperors" and "little empresses" -- talented and savvy, but also spoiled and self-centered. As the preferred gender, boys seem to have developed a strong sense of entitlement. Feeling entitled to their privileges and empowered by their parents' dependence on them for future support, some have taken youth rebellion to extremes. Although rare, there have been instances of children not just talking back to their parents, but striking and even murdering them for such perceived injustices as getting their dinner on the table late.

For some twenty years now, specialists and laypeople alike have worried about the egotism, incivility and moral poverty of these "little emperors," but few have thought about what will happen when the little emperors grow up and China becomes a society of "big emperors." If the little emperors now rule the family, in thirty or forty years they will be running the country, and the country they will run will be a major actor in world affairs. What kind of leaders will they make? Will they be decisive, assertive leaders, whose strong educational backgrounds and cultural sophistication lead them to make wise decisions on behalf of the Chinese people? How will China's first generation of singletons fare in the messy sphere of politics, given that politics demands negotiation and compromise? Will adults who in childhood were unwilling to share their toys or play with other youngsters be able to engage in the give-and-take necessary to reach collective decisions or finesse diplomatic solutions? Will they be willing to listen to others' views and work for the common good?

Thus far, these questions have yet to be posed in any constructive, much less official, capacity. But the answers will likely affect not just those living inside China, but those living around the world.


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