China’s Gender Imbalances: Ready, Able, Squeeze

Mara Hvistendahl’s 2011 book entitled Unnatural Selection: Choosing boys over girls, and the consequences of a world full of men provides an eye-opening account of a phenomenon that is, or at least should be, attracting worldwide attention. Through the eyes of demographers, parents, economists, doctors, feminists, prostitutes, bachelors, brides and others, the book illustrates the wide range of conundrums relating to a world in which the number of men outweighs the number of women by a substantial margin. And nowhere do these conundrums reveal themselves as vividly as in China.

In 2011, China recorded an official sex ratio at birth (SRB) of 117.78 (boys for every one hundred girls), making it well and truly the most gender imbalanced country in the world, a rank it has held since the mid-1980s when the SRB first moved into the ‘abnormal range’ (above 107). Sub-national figures are even more alarming, with the one per cent inter-census survey in 2005 revealing six provinces that recorded SRBs over 130 for the one-four age group, and nine provinces that exceeded 160 for second-order births. These unpleasant statistics are compounded by China’s severely abnormal rates of excess female child mortality (EFCM) – of eighty boys for every hundred girls in the first year of life in 2005, compared with a normal ratio of between 120 and 130. While women in China, as elsewhere, have higher life expectancies than men, the combination of high SRBs and EFCM has left China with the world’s highest sex ratio in the total population, at 108 and rising in 2010, compared with the global average of 101.

These gender imbalances have resulted in substantial numbers of ‘missing women’, a term coined by Amartya Sen in the late 1980s, based on his own research indicating that more than one hundred million women were missing worldwide. China was then, and remains, the major contributor to this global problem, with an estimated forty million missing women in 2000. For every ‘missing’ woman there is a ‘surplus’ man, and future projections suggest that, if the SRB remains at 2000 levels, by 2030 there could be close to thirty million Chinese men seeking a Chinese wife but unable to find one. As with most phenomena relating to China, the issue of rising gender imbalances is taking place on an unprecedented scale, with consequences that extend into all realms of economic, social, and political life.

To explain the cause of rising sex imbalances in a range of Asian countries, demographer Christopher Guilmoto begins with the observation that son preference is widespread (not only in Asia, but just about everywhere), and then identifies three further motivations for deliberate sex selection: ‘fertility squeeze’ (brought about by parents wanting or needing to limit the number of births), ‘ability’ to limit those births (from traditional methods for dealing with unwanted girls through to high tech methods including ultrasound gender identification) and ‘readiness’, which includes the social and legal circumstances that allow parents to take advantage of the birth limiting options available to them.

China clearly checks all the boxes, with a long-standing cultural preference for sons, the introduction of the one-child policy in the early 1980s and the widespread use of Ultrasound B technology to detect gender from the mid-1980s onwards. Although some research has pointed to the under-reporting of female births in China (which would give a false impression of a large number of ‘missing’ girls who are in fact just ‘hidden’), the bulk of evidence indicates that sex selective abortion is primarily responsible for the rising SRB in recent years and that this rise is very real indeed. This view appears to have been accepted by the Chinese government, with Wang Xia, head of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC), announcing in 2012 that: ‘the authorities will crack down further on illegal prenatal gender tests and selective abortions, which are believed to be the primary causes of the gender imbalance’. While Chinese officials are reticent to attribute the rising gender imbalances to their family planning policies (a fairly blatant case of fertility squeeze), they are well aware that the associated problems are looming large.

Political scientists Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer expound upon the link between gender imbalances and domestic social conflict in their 2004 book entitled Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population (‘bare branches’ 光棍 being the Chinese term used to describe unmarried men without children). In an effort to quantify some of these costs (as economists are wont to do), Lena Edlund and her co-authors show that a 0.01 increase in the sex ratio caused a three per cent increase in property and violent crimes in China between 1988 and 2004, indicating that the rise in surplus males may account for up to one-sixth of the overall rise in crime during this period. While this does not validate all of Hudson and den Boer’s claims (some of which are alarmist and speculative), it does indicate that the domestic costs of China’s gender imbalances could be substantial.

There are also numerous indirect costs associated with having a growing number of unmarried men in Chinese society. Anthropological studies have shown that men in societies with large numbers of surplus men will engage in non-productive and risky ‘wife-seeking’ behaviour, sacrificing their own productivity and paternal investments that would have raised their children’s future productivity as well. In addition to these productivity losses, unmarried men also suffer from poorer physical and psychological health, with one recent study showing that unmarried Chinese men are eleven per cent less likely to describe themselves as being in good health than married men.

On the flipside of these (and no doubt many other) costs, there may be some benefits for a country with too many men, in economic terms at least. A recent string of papers by economist Shang-jin Wei and colleagues argues that China’s rising gender imbalances can explain close to half of its rising saving rates, stemming from ‘male excess savings’ that arise as men seek to be competitive in the marriage market. They also show that the sex ratio imbalance stimulates entrepreneurial activities as men are driven to increase their wealth, which boosts private sector growth and hence corporate, as well as household, savings.

While these high savings have undoubtedly been good for China’s economic growth, they have not necessarily been good for the global economy: the excess of domestic savings over investment has fuelled China’s current account surpluses and the United States’ current account deficits, leading Shang-jin Wei and Qingyuan Du to conclude that ‘The sex ratio imbalance is not the sole reason for global imbalances, it could be one of the significant, and yet thus far unrecognised, factors’.

The potentially gargantuan impacts that China’s gender imbalances could have on the domestic and global economies raises the question of whether these imbalances will level out naturally over time. Evolutionary biologists place some faith in the ‘adaptive sex ratio adjustment hypothesis’, in which healthy, well-nourished and high-status mothers are more likely to give birth to sons, whereas unhealthy, poorly nourished and low-status mothers are more likely to give birth to daughters. This can lead to a levelling out of the sex ratio during times of economic hardship (such as the Great Leap Forward famine) or in societies where hypergamy is common, as high-status (rich) mothers give birth to more sons who match up with the relatively large number of daughters born to low-status (poor) mothers. However, the ready availability of ultrasound technology throughout China, combined with strong son preference, suggests that this kind of balance is unlikely to emerge naturally, short of another serious famine, which is hardly a solution worth counting on.

Chicago University economist Gary Becker, not surprisingly, places his trust in the market, arguing that: ‘As children become adults in cohorts with a high ratio of boys, the advantage of girls and women increases since they are scarcer’ so it is men and not women at a disadvantage as the value of women rises and value of men falls. Becker goes on to defend sex selection of births (or, to put it bluntly, aborting unwanted girls) because the market will correct for it in the long run. Be assured that not all economists share this view!


Stall selling pink plastic baby boys (and a single girl at rear right) for fertility prayers at the tomb of Fuxi, mythic creator of the Chinese race. Photograph courtesy of Mark Henley from his book China (Sur)real.

The Chinese government evidently has less faith in the market than Becker, and has recently identified reducing the SRB as a national priority, aiming for 115 newborn males for every one hundred females by 2015. Officials have credited the fall in the official SRB between 2009 and 2011, from 119.45 to 117.78, to their recent crackdowns on illegal prenatal gender tests and selective abortions, and also acknowledge that enhanced efforts to promote equal opportunities and the social status of females are fundamental solutions to the problem.  A further policy option would be to relax current fertility policy which, according to projections by demographer Yi Zeng, could see the SRB normalise by 2030, with the number of surplus men peaking in 2040 and returning to normal by 2050. However, this option remains at odds with the official stance on family planning, suggesting that the ‘squeeze’ will stay in place for some time to come.

Whether or not the latest rebalancing trends can be sustained, and whether or not they are caused by effective government policies, self-correcting market forces, or nature itself, remains to be seen. Regardless, the potential consequences of the world’s most populous country having the world’s largest number of disgruntled men are as fascinating as they are frightening.



Jane Golley is an economist focused on a range of Chinese transition and development issues and an Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World. She is the author of ‘Uncertain Numbers, Uncertain Outcomes’ in China Story Yearbook 2012, Red Rising, Red Eclipse and is presently working on various aspects of China’s demographic change and economic performance, including rural-urban demographic transitions in economic growth and the economic implications of rising gender imbalances.



This essay is based on recent research by Jane Golley and Rod Tyers. For a complete version including full bibliographic details of the research cited herein, please see Taylor & Francis.