China's Unmarriageable Men

For ordinary human populations, the sex ratio at birth has tended to fall in the range of 103-105 baby boys for every 100 baby girls. The most dramatic departure ever from historic biological norms seems to have occurred in recent years in the People's Republic of China. In China's1953 and 1964 censuses, unexceptional sex ratios at birth (i.e. 104-105) were reported. In the 1982 census, however, a sex ratio of almost 108 was recorded. It then rose inexorably: to almost 112 in 1990, then nearly 116 in 1995, and most recently to just under 118 in the November 2000 census.

What accounts for China's extraordinary new patterns in sex ratio at birth? Closer examination suggests the outcome can be explained as a consequence of a collision between three factors: 1) strong and enduring cultural preference for sons, 2) low or sub-replacement fertility, and 3) the advent of widespread technology for prenatal sex determination and gender-based abortion. To judge by the data on sex ratio by birth parity, Chinese parents today are typically willing to let nature take its course in the sex of their firstborn child-but have become increasingly disposed to intervene themselves to assure that a second or third child is a boy. Indeed: according to the 2000 China census, over two-thirds of all "higher order" infants born in the previous year were male.

China's tilt toward biologically impossible sex ratios at birth seems to have coincided with the inauguration of its coercive antenatal "One Child Policy", which was unveiled in 1979. Is Beijing's population control program responsible for these amazing distortions? A tentative answer would be: yes-but not entirely. In other Chinese or Confucian-heritage populations where oppressive population control strictures were not in force--Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea--unnatural sex ratios at birth also emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. In these other spots, the confluence of son preference, low fertility, and sex-selective abortion likewise have distorted the sex ratio at birth--although none so much as in China today. In most of those other locales, moreover, recent data suggests that sex ratios at birth are lower than they were in the early 1990s (Taiwan, South Korea) or even the 1980s (Singapore), while China's rise as yet shows no signs of reversing.

The prospect of steadily diminishing absolute numbers of women of marriageable age, in conjunction with a steadily increasing surfeit of young men in each new class of prospective bachelors, set the stage for an historically unprecedented "marriage squeeze" in China in the decades immediately ahead. Simple, back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggest some very large proportion of tomorrow's young Chinese men-certainly over 10 percent, perhaps 15 percent or more-may find themselves essentially "unmarriageable" on the Mainland in the coming decades.

The expectation of universal male marriage has prevailed in China, and where indeed Confucian tradition stresses the son's obligation to marry and honor one's ancestors by continuing the family line. A shift to the embrace of honorable bachelorhood would mark a radical departure for Chinese society--and important new cultural traditions, in China or elsewhere, are seldom successfully established on short notice.

The world has never before seen the likes of the bride shortage what will be unfolding in China in the decades ahead, so it is difficult to imagine its many reverberations. Some commentators have warned that this "surplus of males" will make for a "deficit of peace" pushing China toward a more martial international posture. That assessment may rather overstate the actual case for demographically induced risks of international conflict in Asia.

It does not seem wild, however, to propose that the emergence and rise of the phenomenon of the "unmarriageable male" may occasion an increase in social tensions in China-and perhaps social turbulence as well. Exactly how China's future cohorts of young men are to be socialized with no prospect of settled family life, and no tradition of honorable bachelorhood, is a question that can be asked today, but not answered. And it is hard to see how Beijing will be able to mitigate China's escalating "bride deficit" through any deliberate policy actions for at least a generation.

China will be the first great power in Asia to suffer from a 21st century "bride shortage." It would be cheering to think that the gender imbalances emerging in Asia's major population centers were a vestige of backward ideas, and will consequently pass away with increasing modernization. The facts to date, unfortunately, do not entirely support such an interpretation. In China over the past two decades, the nationwide sex ratio at birth has increased along with per capita income, female literacy rates, and urbanization. In China today, the more literate provinces tend in fact to have somewhat higher, not lower, sex ratios at birth. For the time being, we must live with the disturbing possibility that continuing "development" and "globalization" will heighten rather than reduce nascent gender imbalances in China--and the knowledge that these particular expressions of "Asian values" will have unpredictable but perhaps not inconsequential repercussions on society and politics in these ostensibly rising powers for decades to come.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at AEI. This essay draws from a longer study by the author titled "Population and Power in Asia," published in the journal Policy Review.

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About the Author


  • Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and a demographer by training, is also a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research, a member of the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum. He researches and writes extensively on economic development, foreign aid, global health, demographics, and poverty. He is the author of numerous monographs and articles on North and South Korea, East Asia, and countries of the former Soviet Union. His books range from The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999) to The Poverty of the Poverty Rate (AEI Press, 2008).


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