Bachelors And No Women
By Justin McCurry
and Rebecca Allison
09 March, 2004
the most populous nation on Earth, could find itself dealing with the
combined frustrations of as many as 40 million single men by 2020 because
its one-child policy is creating a shortage of female babies.
In an unusually frank speech on China's looming demographic crisis,
Li Weixiong, who advises the country's political consultative conference
on population issues, said a cultural preference for boys was creating
an artificial disparity between the number of boys and girls that represents
"a serious threat to building a well-off society".
Mr Li said the dearth
of women would lead to a dramatic rise in prostitution and the trafficking
of women. "This is by no means a sensational prediction,"
The search for love
is leading traditionally staid Chinese men down unfamiliar paths. There
are reports of men placing ads in major newspapers begging women to
respond. If the ads are anything to go by - with some ads emphasising
the possession of a good bathroom - the way to a modern Chinese woman's
heart is a spacious apartment and a decent salary.
Wealthier men are
reportedly taking their search beyond China's borders, a risky tactic
given that many Chinese households have been less than welcoming to
Unmarried men with
less money often have no choice but to turn to illegal brokers, who
dupe rural women into moving to the city with bogus job offers.
The widespread introduction
of ultrasound testing has enabled a much larger number of Chinese couples
to choose to abort female foetuses in the hope that the next pregnancy
will produce a son.
Mr Li said the gender
ratio had stayed relatively normal up until 1982 - two years after the
Chinese authorities imposed the one-child rule - at 100 girls born for
every 108 boys. But by 2000, the ratio had shifted significantly to
about 117 boys to 100 girls.
The disparity is
even bigger in rural areas, where the boy-to-girl imbalance is estimated
to be as high as 130 to 100.
Abortions are not
the only cause of the imbalance. There is alarming evidence that the
intense pressure on couples to make sure their only child is a boy has
prompted a resurgence of female infanticide, despite official attempts
to stamp out the centuries-old practice.
Rural families are
said to be particularly tempted to kill female offspring, such is the
pressure to produce a child capable of coping with the physical demands
of farming and prevent cash-strapped farming households from being plunged
even deeper into poverty.
In some cases, according
to reports, other girls are hidden from the authorities, or die at a
young age through neglect.
Even in urban areas,
boys are generally preferred because they are regarded as more able
than girls to provide for their families, care for elderly relatives
and continue the family line.
stung by accusations from child welfare groups that it is turning a
blind eye to the practice of girl-killing, has allowed some provinces
to grant couples permission to have more than one child provided they
pay a fine to register each extra birth.
In some villages,
local officials have placed dozens of posters bearing the message: "Daughters
are as good as sons!"
evidence of the enormous social cost of their one-child policy, officials
in Beijing insist there are no plans to relax the measure, which they
regard as the most important weapon in China's battle to keep its population
below 1.6 billion until 2050.
policy has had some success. The communist authorities say it has prevented
well over 300 million births since it was introduced in 1980 and is
fulfilling its initial aim of ensuring that China can combat rural poverty
and improve standards of living across the board.
According to the
UN, China's population stood at 1.3 billion in 2003 but independent
estimates believe couples with extra children are hiding them from census
authorities, meaning the actual figure could be as high as 1.5 billion.
As the country's
economy continues to grow and transform at an unprecedented rate, pressure
to relax the policy looks likely to intensify if Mr Li's worst-case
scenario of social unrest, exploitation of women and crime turns out
to be correct.
gender disproportion poses a major threat to the healthy, harmonious
and sustainable growth of the nation's population and would trigger
such crimes and social problems as abduction of women and prostitution,"
His claims are supported
by official figures showing that police freed more than 42,000 kidnapped
women and children in 2001 and 2002. Many of the victims are believed
to have been sold into marriage or prostitution.
professor of Chinese anthropology at the School of Oriental and African
Studies in London, said she welcomed Mr Li's warning as it would remind
China's leaders of the magnitude of the problem they face.
"It is not
a new trend," she said. "Demographers in China as well as
foreign analysts have been expressing concern for some years. In the
last census it was quite clear that this was an upward trend and it
is forecast that there will be a shortage of potential marriage mates
which will lead to some social instability."
Several years ago
the government prohibited doctors from telling couples the sex of their
child, but the measure seems to have had little effect. Mr Li called
for a ban on mid-term abortions, except in cases with health concerns.
could prove a lesson to other countries in the region whose populations
are also being skewed by gender imbalance.
Prof Croll said:
"It is an Asia-wide problem affecting many countries including
Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and India. It is something that is increasing
with development instead of decreasing."
The professor, who
wrote about the issue in her recent book Endangered Daughters: Discrimination
and Development in Asia, said it was a mistake to blame girl infanticide
in China only on a resurgence of "old ideas".
For many families,
she said, the preference for a son makes simple economic sense as they
are less likely to leave the family home after marrying and, as higher
earners than women, are more able to provide for the extended family.
Prof Croll said
more families in China's rapidly expanding cities were favouring sons,
partly because a decline in pensions over the past decade had made older
people less secure and more reliant on their children.
If the authorities
are reluctant to lift the birth limit, possible long-term solutions
to the looming dearth of eligible women may be even more unpalatable.
They include altering the traditional marital balance of power and bringing
women's pay more into line with that of men, enabling them to better
support their families.