Even as it clings to its one-child policy, China’s one-party government is having to face seriously negative outcomes from at least three decades of enforced low fertility. Research results just published in the British Medical Journal by two Chinese academics and another from University College, London, sound a dire warning about sex ratio imbalances that will affect China’s social and economic life for decades to come.
Looking at a 1 per cent sample of the national population under the age of 20 (4.765 million people), the researchers found that in 2005, males exceeded females by more than 32 million, and more than 1.1 million excess births of boys occurred in that year. “China will see very high and steadily worsening sex ratios in the reproductive age group over the next two decades,” they predict. “Enforcing the ban on sex selective abortion could lead to normalisation of the ratios.”
Of course, Beijing has no problem with abortion as a means of controlling the population; it is now widely recognised — even among China’s western cheerleaders — that party officials often force women to undergo abortions when they are caught in violation of the population policy. But when couples use ultrasound followed by abortion to ensure that they have a son, it’s a different story; now it’s a crime against a harmonious society. The researchers say that “sex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males”.
It does not take much imagination to foresee the disharmony likely to be created by tens of millions of men unable to find spouses in their own communities. Will the government encourage them to “import” brides from other countries? But which other countries, when most of China’s neighbours are either in the same boat or have such low fertility that governments will resist any poaching of their women. Already there are reports of trafficking to provide women for rural bachelors.
An accompanying editorial in BMJ by another Chinese academic admits that the study confirms that the one-child policy is “partially responsible” for sex ratio imbalances that rise as high as 160:100 (males to females) for second order births in nine provinces. Ironically, this is largely the result of a variation on the policy that allows rural couples a second child if the first is a girl. (The sex ratio at birth was close to normal for first order births.) But the editorial also blames traditional son preference, and it tries to mitigate the effects of the one-child policy by suggesting that the Chinese were voluntarily reducing their fertility before it was instituted. It ends on an upbeat note:
China’s high ratio of males to females would have persisted if attitudes towards female offspring had not changed.7 Encouragingly, it seems that the tradition of preferring sons is shifting with the socioeconomic changes that come with urbanisation and industrialisation. For example, more and more young women in the cities claim to prefer a small family, and—more importantly—they have no preference for one sex over the other. Indeed, Zhu and colleagues report a decrease in the male to female ratio for the 2005 cohort, which may indicate the beginning of a reduction in the male to female sex ratio for the future.
South Korea has managed to reduce a sex ratio imbalance in combination with very low fertility, so why not China?