Good afternoon. I am Dudley Poston, a sociology and demography professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. I am also an adjunct professor at three universities in China (Renmin University, Fuzhou University, and Nanjing Normal University). I have been teaching demography and conducting demographic research for almost 42 years. The past 19 years I have been a faculty member at Texas A&M in College Station; previously I was on the sociology faculties at the University of Texas at Austin for over 18 years and at Cornell University for 4 years. I specialize in the demography of China and East Asia, esp. Taiwan and South Korea. In my almost 42 years as a professor, I have trained over 60 Ph.D. students, a dozen or more of whom are now demographers for the Chinese government and/or are teaching at various universities in China and Taiwan.
Much of my current research focuses on sex structure, especially the sex ratio at birth (SRB). In virtually all societies that record data on births, if there are no human interventions, there will be a sex ratio at birth of around 105 (with a narrow range between 104 and 107), that is, every year, around 105 boys will be born for every 100 girls. This is likely an evolutionary adaptation to another demographic universal, namely, the fact that death rates for females at every age most everywhere are less than those of males. Thus, societies need around 105 boys to be born for every 100 girls so to guarantee even or balanced sex ratios when the females and males reach marriage ages in their 20s.
In the past two decades, several countries, mainly in Asia, have been reporting SRBs significantly above the biological normal ratio of 105. China, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Armenia and Azerbaijan are among the countries reporting SRBs above 110, and there are several more with SRBs above 108. China’s SRB has been around 120 and India’s and Taiwan’s a little less. South Korea had an SRB as high as 117 in the year of 1990, and is the only country today that has lowered its SRB back to a near normal level.
Four events or phenomena must be present in a country for it to have a higher than biologically normal SRB: 1) a rapid fertility decline in 20-30 years from high to low levels, 2) the presence in the culture of a strong preference for sons, 3) the availability and relative ease of access to technologies allowing the determination of the sex of the fetus, and 4) the availability and relative ease of access physically and normatively to abortion. These four phenomena/events are all present in China and India and the other countries just mentioned.
Conventional wisdom sometimes claims that unbalanced SRBs are the result of traditional, i.e., old-fashioned norms and thinking. My research and that of others show this not always to be true. Disparities in the SRB seem to increase with increases in income, education and the labor force participation of women; thus with rising socioeconomic status and falling fertility, more and more people tend to live in smaller, richer families that are under the most pressure to produce a son. Also it is not necessary to have a coercive birth planning policy to bring about high SRBs; witness the several countries with high SRBs but no birth planning policy whatsoever. In China, which has had the highest SRBs for the longest amount of time, the draconian One-Child Policy certainly has played a role in driving the gendercide of girls. Indeed some research has shown a relationship between the One-Child Policy and higher SRBs, suggesting that stricter fertility control and higher fines lead to higher ratios of males to females.
China and India have begun to try to curb the growing gender imbalance through anti-discrimination laws and media campaigns, but unfortunately these campaigns have not yet had much of an impact on their SRBs. While China’s SRB has fallen from 120 a few years ago to 118-119 today, it is still higher than it was in 2000.
The estimated numbers of extra boys who have already been born and who will be unable to find brides in China are staggering. I first conducted research on this question about 8 years ago and published an op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune in 2005 (“China: Bachelor Bomb,” September 14, 2005, p. 10) reporting that the number of excess boys in the first years of the new millennium was about 23 million. My current research shows a much larger number as of 2010; I estimate that between the years of 1983, the starting year of the imbalanced sex ratios at birth in China, and 2010, there have been born in China a surplus of around 41 million males for whom there will not be appropriately aged Chinese women in the marriage market for them to marry. I have also projected the number of surplus boys born between 1983 and 2020, under two different assumptions: 1) if there are no changes in China’s SRB between now and 2020, I project there will be over 55 million extra boys born since 1983 who will not be able to find women in China to marry; 2) if China is able to reduce its SRB by 2020 to 107, I project there will be a surplus of almost 51 million males.
These numbers are astounding. There have already been born 41 million boys in China who will end up as bachelors; and if China drops its SRB to 107 by 2020 (not very likely to occur), there will be 51 million bachelors. These are huge numbers. The current number of 41 million-plus surplus boys exceeds the entire population of most countries. Also, there are more boys right now in China who will end up being bachelors than there are people living inCalifornia in 2010 (37.3 million) or in Texas (25.1 million). It is true that the number of bachelors in China represents but a tiny fraction of the 1.3 billion Chinese in the country. However, these millions of "bare branches" (as they are known in China) will be concentrated in a generation born over a short 30-year period and will be living mostly in the cities of a largely rural China.
The “average” surplus male (“bare branch”) in China is unmarried, poor, unemployed, and has little education. The 2000 Chinese census showed that 89 percent of all unmarried men have not completed high school. Surplus men in China who are coming of age now are even less likely to have opportunities for education, which will leave them underemployed and poor. Few women would desire such prospects as marriage partners.
When there is an extreme excess of males in a population, history has shown many different consequences, including a rise in authoritarian rule in order to deal with the violence that occurs from the unattached men. A country may also choose to just allow the males to fight within their groups, which leads to excess mortality. These males may experience direct physical force, or even geographical relocation. Another option has been to recruit the boys into dangerous jobs including law enforcement, the military and public projects. I return to a fuller discussion of these options below.
In my view, the most probable outcome is that these males will remain unmarried and adapt to living in communal areas that cater to their work and lifestyles. They will likely move to “bachelor ghettos” in such large cities as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and others. Research has shown that the commercial sex markets in urban areas will quickly accommodate these millions of bachelors where the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections will be high. And even if the “bare branches” do not engage in significant amounts of commercial sex, there is a greater propensity for bachelors compared to married men to test positive for sexually transmitted infections. This has implications not just for China but for the U.S. and for that matter the world.
The heterosexual transmission of HIV is the fastest growing avenue for the transmission of HIV/AIDS in China, according to the Ministry of Health of China, with commercial sex workers accounting for 20 percent of new cases, HIV-infected partners accounting for 17 percent, and male homosexual sex accounting for 7 percent of newly infected people. Statistical analyses have shown that there is a huge potential in China for an HIV epidemic. The numbers of HIV cases in China in the next decade and later, owing to the bachelors and other factors (e.g., the extremely large “floating,” i.e., rural to urban migrant, population in China), could well rival the number of HIV cases in sub-Saharan Africa, where as of 2007 there were 21-24 million adults infected, which is 70% of the total number of adult HIV infections worldwide.
Finally, there is an important implication with respect to national and international security that is key for U.S. considerations. This is a complex argument but may be simplified as follows. Research suggests that a government has three options to control the millions of unruly “bare branches”: 1) expulsion of them by expansionist war, 2) suppression of them by authoritarian means, and 3) inclusion of them by recruitment into the internal security apparatus. These strategies will likely lead to three negative results: 1) war and invasion, 2) the government remains authoritarian (and not democratic), and 3) there is a large amount of internal fighting.
Some studies on the security logic of high-sex-ratio cultures such as India and China suggest that nations will be predisposed to see some utility in interstate conflict. In addition to stimulating a steadier allegiance from the “bare branches,” who could well be especially motivated by issues involving national pride and martial prowess, interstate conflict is often an effective mechanism by which governments can send “bare branches” away from population centers, possibly never to return. This is essentially a “diversionary war theory,” sometimes referred to as the scapegoat hypothesis, and it postulates that a government that has troubles domestically will try and find an external enemy to blame and attack.
The diversionary war theory, some claim, may not fit as well into an authoritarian government such as China, as it would into a democratic government that holds elections such as India. Levy (1989) has noted that “democratic states are particularly likely to use force externally during an election year, especially when the election occurs at a time of economic stagnation.” But the converse may not be as equally true for authoritarian regimes because they do not have to sway or please the electorate. For example, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did not pursue diversionary wars during or after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, or during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. The diversionary war theory may have real implications for the U.S. I simply introduce these reservations here to indicate that political scientists and political demographers do not always agree on the extent to which China might engage in a diversionary war owing to its many millions of “bare branches,” and thus there are many questions still left unanswered.
One thing, however, is certain: we have never in the history of the world seen such a large number of unmarried males in any one country all within around 30 years of age. We really don’t know what will happen, other than the fact that 41 million bachelors have already been born in China. The surplus of “bare branches” and the shortage of girls "made in China" could soon become not just a concern forChina, but for the United States and for the world. While the U.S. stands thousands of miles across the Pacific, we are not immune from Chinese military aggression. Consider, for instance, what might happen should China decide to attack Taiwan in an effort to reclaim it. The U.S., which has made a commitment to Taiwan, could well be drawn into a war with China in that case.
Another possible scenario is a diversionary war between China and India, which share a border and even had a brief war nearly 50 years ago (the Sino-Indian War of 1962). Since both of these countries will have a very large surplus of young men in the near future, it is conceivable that tensions may increase between the two countries to the point of military conflict. Perhaps more conceivable is the possibility of a war between India and Pakistan, which have a long history of conflict particularly over the Kashmir region. In either scenario, the results could be catastrophic for Asia and, by extension, the global economy which depends so heavily on Asia.
The U.S. needs to be aware of the possible implications of the “bare branches.” The U.S. needs to encourage all countries, in addition to China and India, of the need to raise the value of girls, to encourage female education, to abolish laws and customs that prevent daughters from inheriting property, and to get women engaged in public life. The Economist magazine recently (2010) reminded us that Mao Zedong once said that “women hold up half the sky.” The U.S. and the world need to do a great deal more to prevent a gendercide that could well have the sky come crashing down.
(Image: Texas A&M University Times)
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