The Backlash of China’s Birth Policy

April 22, 2015 Updated: April 22, 2015

China’s family planning policy of the 1970s prevented an estimated 400 million additional births in the world’s most populous country. Although the “one child policy” was particularly effective in urban areas, in rural areas many families continue to have two or more children, even when all the children are boys.

Traditionally, Chinese families, particularly rural ones, have strong preference for their male heirs, who will continue to carry the family name and, it was believed, would also take better care of their parents. In rural areas, families still hide the birth of daughters and don’t register them with the authorities so that they can legally try for a son.

With the prevalence of sonograms in recent years parents can learn the gender of their fetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy. This has led to a sharp increase in abortions, now widely available in the country. Although the Chinese government still bans the use of tests to determine the fetus’s gender for nonmedical reasons, these tests are still widely done, mainly in private clinics in the countryside.

China has carried out propaganda campaigns extolling the virtues of daughters and offering financial incentives for couples who have them. Although these measures have led to more female births, China’s gender imbalance is still “the most serious in the world and has lasted for the longest time and affected the largest number of people,” according to China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission.

A study by Therese Hesketh, a lecturer at the Centre for International Health and Development at University College in London found that China now has 119 male births for every 100 girls, compared with 107 to 100 for industrialized countries. This imbalance is expected to worsen over the next two decades and provoke a host of social problems.

According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, China presents a unique situation. In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, Eberstadt said, “China will face a growing number of young men who will never marry due to the country’s one-child policy, which has resulted in a reported birth ratio of almost 120 boys for every 100 girls. By 2030, projections suggest that more than 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. The coming marriage squeeze will likely be even more acute in the Chinese countryside, since the poor, uneducated, and rural population will be more likely to lose out in the competition for brides.” In some villages, women are kidnapped and sold as wives, according to some villagers.

China is already experiencing the effects of a surplus of unmarried young men. Unmarried men, who some experts call “bare branches,” can be a danger to social stability. Some experts on population problems believe that those men, who have a limited social life because of the lack of a female companion, are more prone to commit violent acts.

In areas of China with the most male-biased sex ratios there are social consequences such as increased gambling and drug abuse, and increased kidnapping and trafficking of women. In addition, some experts warn that these young men are perfect candidates for political agitation and fundamentalism.

One of the reasons that parents prefer sons over daughters is the belief that sons will be better able to protect them in old age. However, the more assertive role that Chinese woman now hold in society, combined with their having equal or higher salaries than men, can shatter this belief.

In addition, some single women have greater spending power than their unmarried counterparts, which allows them a much more active social life. In some cases, assertive women accept getting married on condition that the offspring will carry their family name, and not their husband’s name.

The demographic and social problems posed by unmarried men can be considerable. “I have to wonder how people in the American intelligence community or in the international financial world or in China’s economic planning units can think that China is going to be growing at 7 percent a year for the next 20 years,” said Eberstadt.

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.