To say that China’s one-child family policy
has been a disaster is an understatement. A report released earlier this month
by the nation’s top think tank – the Communist Government’s Chinese Academy of
Social Sciences (CASS) – says that the policy has created a huge gender
imbalance with significant implications for future social stability.
Indeed, according to the report, 24 million
men reaching marriageable age by 2020 will never marry because of the sex
imbalance. Think of it in these terms: what if the entire population of New
York City or of Australia was never able to marry. Imagine the social
implications in a city or nation that large where no one can marry. Imagine if
that city or country is comprised solely of 24 million men; men with no homes
to return to at night; men without the responsibilities of a family to keep
them engaged in productive pursuits.
The CASS report – carrying the understated
title “Contemporary Chinese Social Structure” – raises some key questions but it
is short on answers.
Since the report was published many Chinese
bloggers have been commenting on its implications. Some more daring Chinese
netizens have highlighted that many boys entering puberty are oblivious to the
fact that they will never be able to marry; they ask which parents wish to tell
their sons to prepare for a bleak future alone – unable to find a wife and unable
to establish their own families. Interestingly the CASS report termed those
condemned to bachelorhood “bare branches” because they would not be able to
establish family trees of their own.
How China got to this pitiful state is well
documented. A rigid one child per family policy, legal and easily available
abortion, and a cultural and economic preference for sons, resulted in sex
selective abortions since the early 1980s. Laws to deter such behaviour have
failed resoundingly. For example, obtaining knowledge of an unborn baby’s sex
from ultrasounds was made illegal to stop abortions of baby girls by the 1990s.
But throughout China’s rural villages and towns it remains possible to bribe
staff in medical clinics and hospitals to find out the sex of an expected
child. Once the parents decide to abort an unborn baby, Chinese law does not
require them to carry an unborn baby girl to term.
More girls than boys are aborted. Many
more. So much more that Mao Zedong’s words – to emphasise the equality of the
sexes – that “women hold up half the sky” will soon ring hollow.
Of course, China has never really given
women true equality. Whether it was foot-binding – an atrocious practice only
finally outlawed by the Communists – or the Communists telling women how many
children they may have, Chinese women have long been denied the right to
determine their own futures, especially when it has come to their most basic
right, the right of reproduction. The fact that women in China’s National Population
and Family Planning Commission promote the policy does not make it any the less
repressive of women.
The main concern raised by the CASS report
is that 24 million men condemned to a life alone will result in a major strain
on the State welfare system. Essentially, without families of their own to care
for them as this generation starts ageing, the State will need to step in with
sufficient pension funds and aged care facilities for the old bachelors of the
latter decades of the 21st Century.
But other problems – such as a rising
incidence of prostitution and violent crime – are on the horizon, judging by
some current trends.
For example, while the number of baby girls
being born has declined, the number of kidnappings and trafficking of young
girls has risen. According to the National Population and Family Planning
Commission – that’s right, the very organization responsible for the one child
family policy — abductions and
trafficking of women and girls has become “rampant”.
Young girls are being kidnapped within
China and also from neighboring countries (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar,
Thailand) by organized gangs who sell them to families with boys of a similar
age. The girls will be raised by the families and given as brides to their sons
as soon as they reach marriageable age. Others are shipped to brothels within
China for a life as sex slaves.
Needless to say China’s neighbours are not enamored
of the growing practice. Diplomatic tensions have risen over the issue and
China has had to establish a special police unit to help its neighbours combat
the very crime its policy has created.
Even more bizarre crimes have been reported
in this patriarchal society where it is believed that a wife is necessary to
tend to her husband even after death. A rising practice in some remote areas of
China is to dig up the corpses of single women to sell to families whose sons
may have recently perished. Posthumous wedding ceremonies are held to ensure
the deceased son does not have to endure the next life alone. With higher
prices commanded by fresh corpses of young women the practice has led to
murders of young girls by some crime gangs looking to capitalize on distraught
parents enduring the loss of a young son.
It appears the CASS report has merely touched
the tip of the iceberg. But it is interesting that the nation’s top Government
think-tank is publicly discussing the matter. Could the public airing of the
coming social problems caused by the one-child family policy mean that the
Government is ready to repeal the policy? Or has CASS just made a Cassandra prophecy?
Indeed, it seems unlikely the Government
will pay too much attention to the real implications of the report. More likely
the Government will only continue tinkering at the edges of the policy.
For the past couple of years, China has
allowed married couples in its larger cities, where both members of the couple
are themselves the only children of their parents, to have two children. In all
probability, China is only going to extend this privilege to its smaller cities
and maybe to some towns in rural areas. This belief is supported by the fact
that the Government continues to argue the overall success of the one child
family policy in reducing China’s population by around 400 million.
As long as the Government believes the
country is over-populated it will not rescind its policy – no matter what the costs.
Short of a change of Government (not very likely in this nation where, as Mao
put it, “power comes from the barrel of a gun” rather than the ballot box), the
focus on reducing population size in China is here to stay.
But even if China totally repealed the one-child
family policy today, it would be too late for today’s generation of teenage
boys. By 2020 some 24 million men will start realizing that a family life is
not for them – no matter how much they yearn for it. China should expect them
to be just a little angry.
Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.