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HOW SHE SEES IT Troubling trend emerges in Asia

Friday, February 27, 2004

Take a strong cultural preference for sons over daughters in China, India and other Asian countries, add widely available technology to learn the sex of an unborn child and little social disapproval of abortion, and the result is a wildly unbalanced sex ratio of boys to girls at birth. In some places, it reaches a "biologically impossible" 130 boys for every 100 girls.
In an article in the February-March issue of Policy Review (, Nicholas Eberstadt surveys the effects of demographic change in Asia on the balance of international power in the area over the next 20 to 25 years. It will be a strikingly different place. One particularly dramatic example is the comparison between Russia and Pakistan.
A generation ago, Russia had roughly twice as many people as Pakistan; a generation from now, under reasonable assumptions, a slightly smaller Russia will have half as many people as Pakistan.
Demographic projections about how many children will be born are notoriously unreliable, as the existence of the baby boomers reminds us. Fertility rates dropped further and faster than practically anyone predicted, and are now below replacement rates in large parts of Europe and Asia. But most of the people who will be alive in 2025 have already been born, so if one wants to consider, say, the marriage prospects of young Chinese men, future changes in the birth rate or the sex ratio at birth will have little effect over that length of time.
"It is hard to see," Eberstadt says, "how Beijing will be able to mitigate China's escalating 'bride deficit' through any deliberate policy actions for at least a generation (unless of course Beijing stumbles upon a method of manufacturing full-grown Chinese women on demand)."
The natural sex ratio is in the range of 103 to 105 baby boys for every 100 baby girls. In China, only Tibet and Xinjiang, which have large ethnic minority populations, are in that range.
It is likely relevant that the one-child policy was much more strictly enforced among Han Chinese. Three provinces have sex ratios over 130, and for the country as a whole it was 118 in the 2000 census.
The second child
Judging by census reports, Eberstadt says, "Chinese parents today are typically willing to let nature take its course in the sex of their firstborn child but have become increasingly disposed to intervene themselves to assure that a second or third child is a boy. Indeed, according to the 2000 China census, over two-thirds of all 'higher order' infants born in the previous year were male."
The cultural preference for sons is driven in part by a wish to carry on the family name. Of course, if those excess sons can't find anyone to marry, the family name will die out just as certainly. But it also rests on the tradition that sons look after their parents in their old age, while daughters go to their husbands' families.
China has virtually no public retirement system, and only about one-sixth of the population is covered by any retirement system at all. Furthermore, such systems as do exist are "amazingly unsound in actuarial terms," Eberstadt notes.
By 2025, there will be nearly 300 million Chinese older than 60 (the standard retirement age for men) and at the same time the population of working age is drawn from the much smaller birth cohorts resulting from the one-child policy. The number of elderly people in need of support will roughly equal the number of people obliged to support them, and even with the skewed sex ratio perhaps as many as a quarter of elderly Chinese will have no living sons.
Demographic changes
So China faces two unprecedented demographic changes. One is that the median age will rise from about 30 now to 39 by 2025, "very nearly as rapid as anything history has yet seen." Only Japan has recorded faster aging, but the difference is, Eberstadt says, "Japan became rich before it became old; China will do things the other way around."
The other is the excess of males. "The world has never before seen the likes of the bride shortage that will be unfolding in China in the decades ahead" (though there are indications that the same thing may happen in India as well). A substantial percentage of men will have little or no chance of marriage, or perhaps any settled family life at all.
Given the differences in behavior between married and unmarried men (especially young unmarried men), it's difficult to see this turning out well.
XLinda Seebach writes for the Rocky Mountain News.