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China's staggering male-female ratio worsens

Kathleen E. McLaughlinGlobalPost.com

BEIJING, China — It’s a fact so frequently repeated and well known, it often seems taken for granted: China has too many men.

Three decades after China implemented its contentious one-child policy, coupled with a lingering cultural preference for boys and the advent of cheap and accessible ultrasound technology, the country’s skewed gender ratio has only gotten worse. Social scientists in China say the upcoming census results could reveal a gender ratio of 122 boys born for every 100 girls. Under natural conditions, there are typically 105-106 boys for every 100 girls.

In China, millions of baby girls were simply never born. The country has a certified shortage of women.

Through a series of changes and loosening restrictions, the one-child policy is beginning to fade, and in fact, it only affects about half of couples. The Chinese government is reluctant to let the policy go entirely, but seems perpetually on the verge of abandoning it. Still, the damage is done. The social experiment is well underway, thanks to strict enforcement of the rule for more than 20 years.

By 2020, sociologists expect an “extra” 35 million Chinese men — males for whom there are simply no available female partners. That’s slightly more than the population of Canada.

This army of single young men is coming of age now. Looking at the next decade and the questions loom large: What risks do they pose and how will China handle them? The questions are particularly relevant in the wake of uprisings in the Arab world, where restless young men are often pointed to at the heart of protests.

In 2005, two researchers took on the dicey question of skewed gender ratios in Asia, particularly China and India. In their book, “Bare Branches,” Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer argued that the surplus males of Asia could pose security risks. In more recent years, China’s staggering economic rise, double digits growth rates and a new position as the world’s second-largest economy, have helped stave off trouble by creating jobs and economic opportunity.

Still, Hudson said, problems and the seeds of unrest remain. The country has an estimated 100,000 protests each year, mostly in rural areas, related to everything from environmental damage to labor issues.

“I would suggest that China is not as ‘calm’ as one might imagine,” Hudson said. “The number of protests and riots has increased in an almost exponential form over the last 10 years.”

“Crime rates, especially violent crime rates, are rising,” she added. “These are the harbingers of the social unrest which we believe will result from about 15 percent of the young adult male population being surplus to the number of women in that age cohort.”

Though other countries have skewed gender ratios, China’s is likely worst than any other (though Vietnam is close), said Hudson. As it’s also a burgeoning world power and the world’s most populous nation, what happens here matters.

The shortage of women has taken all sorts of strange twists and turns in Chinese society — from a dramatic rise in prostitution and trafficking to unexpected sources of power for women who previously had none.

This GlobalPost series will explore the ways in which Chinese society is changing, adapting to the world’s worst-ever manmade gender gap. In ongoing stories, we’ll look at both sides of the coin and try to explain what happens in a country with too many men.