Surplus Males and US/China Relations

Alexander C. Sanger
March 21, 2003

Buried inside the recent National Intelligence Council Report, "The Next Wave of HIV/AIDS: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, India and China", is the statement:

"As HIV/AIDS moves into the general population in China, past experience in other countries suggests it will exacerbate an already existing gender imbalance because of the practice of female infanticide."

The NIC Report concluded that HIV/AIDS by itself would not pose a fundamental threat to china becoming a major regional player, nor would it become a lightning rod for widespread public discontent. What the Report failed to do, however, was to connect the dots of the Chinese gender imbalance and HIV/AIDS to see that China has a major population/security problem. China's population "problem" isn't too many people, or too many people with HIV/AIDS, or too many poor people. China's population problem is too many men and correspondingly too few women. And this problem won't be solved until China admits it is a problem, as it recently did with HIV/AIDS, and real steps are taken to address it. It is in the security interests of the United States to force China to deal with the gender issue.

China is simultaneously one of our largest trading partners and is seen by some as one of our largest economic and security threats. There are serious security issues between China and its neighbors, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and India, China is a nuclear power and has missile capability. Its armed forces have over 2 million soldiers. The future growth of Chinese military capability is of major concern for U.S. policymakers. China's population dynamics will have an important impact on the extent and severity of these multiple threats.

China is a nation undergoing rapid social and economic change in its transformation to a free market economy. It remains however an authoritarian state, but political and social instability lie not far underneath the surface. Newspaper reports on the upcoming 16th Communist Party Conference to open in November have focused on the extent of the upcoming power transfer from Jiang Zemin to his successors and whether he will retain some of his official positions in order to maintain expertise and continuity at the top. These same newspaper reports have also noted that there has been a recent increase in unrest in China with protests by workers and farmers. While economic factors are the main causes of these protests, demographic factors should not be discounted. These protests are viewed with extreme seriousness by Chinese officials who see them as a threat to the legitimacy of the government.

China has recently come to face the extent of its AIDS crisis. While it finally admitted that it has an epidemic on its hands, it consistently understates the number of infected citizens. Estimates are that there are several million HIV-positive Chinese, but the government now admits to only about a million. The UN estimates the figure to be 1.5 million. As with the rest of the world, AIDS is or will affect productivity in the Chinese economy and the readiness of soldiers in its military. It is a potential threat to social order of the first magnitude, but its impact will be dampened by the sheer size of China's population. As the NIC Report noted, even with 15 million infected persons, ten times the current UN estimate, this would represent only 2% of China's adult population.

In the last month China took two major steps to affect its population dynamics and their impact on Chinese society, economy and military: 1) as of September 1 China began to implement a new Population Law; and 2) China began the sale of Kedu, a legal imitation of AZT and the first China-made antiretroviral drug for treating AIDS. These steps may have some limited usefulness, but they miss the point.

The continuation of the One-Child Policy in the new Population Law was driven by the fact that China has the largest population of any country on the planet and will have for the next half century, when experts predict that it will cede the top spot to India. The current population is about 1.2 billion. The current birth rate is about 1.8 children per woman, or less than the replacement rate of 2.1. Because of population momentum, that is to say an increasing number of women entering their childbearing years, the population will continue to increase, albeit slowly. Population growth rate predictions are subject to many unknowns, including the death rate, as well as all the myriad factors that affect a woman's ability to, and decision, give birth.

To try to bring some control over this latter factor, China has had in place a One-Child Policy for the last twenty years, which mostly means what it says: each family can have just one child, though there are exceptions. Exceptions were made for rural couples whose first child was female and for ethnic minorities to have a second child. These exceptions varied by province. The result was that the childbearing rate of 2.8 in 1979 fell to 1.8 by 1993, where it has remained. It should be emphasized that this is the reported childbearing rate. The actual rate might be quite different. China reports that only 20% of children under age 14 are only children.

Women in China in making their childbearing decisions are trying to navigate through the same environmental factors that affect as women in Western countries: urbanization, crowding, higher levels of education being provided and needed for both them and their children, higher costs to raise a child, higher female work force participation--- all leading to a higher standard of living. In most Western countries these factors have led to a reduced birthrate and smaller families. Most experts predict that the Chinese childbearing rate will remain steady at about 1.8 in the future. This will lead to an inexorable aging of the Chinese population, unless death rates of older Chinese rise sharply. The over-60 age group is the nation's fastest growing age group. From 1982 to 1998 it grew 60% and totals about 125 million people. The future aging of China and what it means for China's domestic economic and fiscal priorities is in many ways predictable and not dissimilar from the aging problem in many European countries.

The more unpredictable component of China's population picture is the male half of the population--- or rather the male greater-than-half. The ratio of males to females in a population is called the sex ratio. There is one sex ratio-that of males and females born and a second, different sex ratio for males and females of all ages alive at any one time in a society. China's One-Child population policy has had and is having a major effect on both its sex ratios, as well as on the other components of its population mosaic.

The intersection of the One-Child Policy with China's cultural preference for males has led to rising female infant mortality and pre-natal sex selection abortion which has in turn caused a growing imbalance in the last two decades in the sex ratio at birth and the sex ratio of the population as a whole. Around the world the norm is that about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio soon evens out as males normally die quicker than females, and as a result in most Western countries there are more females alive than males. The reverse is true in China. The sex ratio at birth in China in 2000 was about 117, that is to say 117 males were born for every 100 females. Estimates in 2002 are that the sex ratio at birth is 120, or 120 boys are born for every 100 girls, far above the worldwide norm of 105. In addition, Chinese females are dying at a higher rate than boys in infancy. There is certainly an underreporting of both female births and female infanticide, but experts believe the reported figures reflect the seriousness of the sex ratio imbalance.

In September 2002 China codified the One-Child Policy into law. While China could have declared victory with a birthrate less than the replacement rate and relegated the One Child Policy to the dustbin, China instead made the affirmative decision to continue the Policy and give the full imprimatur of the state to it by law. In response to Western criticism, the new law states that reproductive decisions are to be made freely and knowledgably and that coercion is prohibited. This provision would presumably outlaw forced sterilization and abortion. Pre-natal sex selection abortion is specifically forbidden.

Despite these liberalizations, the goal of the original One-Child Policy remains: to have a nationwide birthrate of 1.62 children per woman. But rather than tighten the law to bring the birthrate down from its current level of 1.8, China relaxed the law in part and left many decisions on exceptions and penalties to the local provinces. In some provinces there are as many as 13 categories of couples who can have a second child. In general, ethnic minorities are permitted a second child. Rural couples as well can try for a boy if their first child is a girl. Couples who marry late, after about age 24 or 25, will be permitted by some provinces to get permission for a second child, as will couples who wait until after five years of marriage to have their first child. People who remarry can have a second child. This is a stunning exception. While clearly a humanitarian gesture, it will inexorably lead to men and women into revolving marriages in order to have more children. Coal miners can have a second child, perhaps as a reward for undertaking such a risky occupation.

There are fines for having a second child without permission, and these can be substantial, often more than a year's salary, in one province up to eight times. There is the possibility of additional penalties that provinces will impose on those who have a second child without permission. These in the past have included the couple losing its home and state schooling for their children.

An interesting comparison is India's 2000 population policy. Couples in India receive incentive payments when they marry late and when they get sterilized after two children. Some poorer couples receive additional welfare payments if they have less than two children. Some Indian states have adopted harsher methods, including barring those with more than two children from voting or holding government jobs. There has been less of an outcry about India's policy perhaps because it comes into effect after two children, rather than after one, and there is as of yet no reported cases of forced abortion by the authorities.

The result in China, and less so in India, is a severe and growing sex ratio, that is too say, more and more males both being born and surviving than females. The result of more boys being born and surviving than girls is that over the next decades estimates are that about 30 to 40 million Chinese males will be unable to find a bride, marry and settle down. The estimates of this phenomenon, like estimates of population growth, are subject to many variables. These include the inclination of the male to marry a female, and vice versa, but also the extent of the age gap between spouses and the rate of population growth can determine what is called the spousal availability ratio. In many, if not most cultures, the male is older than the female at time of marriage, but the age differential varies. In China the average age gap was 1.7 years in 1990. Officials of the China Family Planning Association say that it is likely that this age gap will increase in the years ahead. In seeking a bride, males are not limited to females of their own age and vice versa. Thus if the population is growing and the age differential is also growing, then, despite an imbalance in the sex ratio for males and females of the same age, there may not be as large or any imbalance in the spousal availability ratio. There may be a large available pool of females younger who are willing to marry a male of an older age.

However, as has been the case in China since the One-Child Policy was instituted, there has been a decrease in, or at least a slower increase in, successive births each year. In addition, there has been increased discrimination against females by pre-natal sex selection abortion, female infanticide and female infant mortality, thus leading to an ever growing male proportion of births and surviving children, and hence adults over time. In 2002, the first post-One-Child Policy generation is reaching age 23, an age when many are considering marriage. Given that this is the first age cohort under the Policy to come of age, the male imbalance and marriage availability ratio may at first be small or negligible. But it will grow substantially over the next decades and shows no signs of decreasing. In fact, the marriage availability ratio shows every sign of continuing to increase as discrimination against females grows and as the annual birth level stabilizes.

China has experienced ebbs and flows of "excess" males and females during the 20th century and in fact throughout its history. Discrimination against females is not a new phenomenon in China. It generally increases in times of war. From 1930 to 1944 there was a rise in female discrimination and thus in the male sex ratio at birth. For example, for those born in the years 1937-1941, 17% of the females were "missing", a percent not dissimilar from the current figures, but the number of total births was growing, which kept the marriage availability ratio more even.

More serious imbalance in the marriage availability ratio appeared after the institution of the national family planning policy in about 1970. Fertility levels began to fall rapidly during the 1970's, and discrimination against females rose albeit slowly. The discrimination against females began to rise more sharply after the One-Child Policy was instituted in 1979 and portable ultrasound machines for pre-natal sex selection appeared in the 1980's.

Experts estimate that the cohort of men born in 1970-1974 will experience the greatest imbalance in the marriage availability ratio than any other cohort of men in 20th century China, including those born during the Japanese invasion and World War Two when an estimated 10 million people, presumably mostly men, were killed. This imbalance is caused mostly by fertility decline. For men born after 1975, the imbalance is caused mostly by anti-female discrimination. The estimates are that 12% of men born after 1985 will not be able to find wives. This situation will increase and will not decrease until the discrimination against females ends.

If the sex imbalance and marriage availability ratio show no signs of righting themselves, what are the implications? Can the culture be changed so that girls will cease to be discriminated against? What are the implications of inaction on the sex ratio for Chinese men and women and for the future of China itself?

First, what are the social implications of a growing sex imbalance and marriage availability ratio imbalance? In an open market, which no society is, females should become more valuable and not just in an economic sense. Females should acquire more status, more value, be treated better and have more power in relationships. Alas, this has not proven to be the case in China. The rise in value of females has occurred but is reported reflected in an increasing "bride price", the amount a male or male's family pays a female's family in order to marry her, or the amount the male's family invests in the new couple's home. While there is anecdotal evidence that women who are free to choose a spouse are becoming choosier and marrying men of higher socio-economic status, there is also anecdotal evidence that less fortunate males are beating the system by a variety of strategies, including arranged marriages at an early age, marriage between first cousins and early adoption of female orphans to be future brides. A brisk trade has developed in women kidnapped to be sold as brides.

For comparison's sake, in India where there is a surplus of females and a marriage availability ratio that favors males, this has meant an increase in the dowry that a female's family must pay to the male's family. Dowry inflation can lead to increased discrimination against females as seen in dowry-related violence. It seems that women can't win whether they are in the numerical majority or minority. As one observer wrote, "Being in short supply does not seem to alter women's status and autonomy."

On the other side of the coin, men too suffer because of the imbalance. Given that a man's resources are a factor in a marriage decision, both the male's in choosing to marry and the female's in whom to choose, with a surplus of men it is the less wealthy male who will be most likely left out of the marriage market. The poor male is a less attractive marriage partner and probably cannot afford to purchase a bride from kidnappers. What is a poor male to do?

With a reduced prospect of finding a bride in a home village and with a continued life of poverty stretching in front of them at home, it is no surprise that poor young men are migrating in search of better paying jobs and the hope of being a more attractive spouse. Migration from the country to the city has skyrocketed in China, as it has in much of the developing world. Estimates are that there are 125 million migrant workers in China. Some migrants get official permission to move and live in the city or at the site of a public works project, but many others do so without permission and live a shadow existence in the underground economy. Estimates are that urban unemployment totals about 30 million workers. The unemployed are mostly male, poor, uneducated, unmarried and migrant. For society's point of view they are not just a wasted resource, they are a danger.

As one high Chinese official said, "The numbers mean that some people will never have their need for a spouse met, so they move into dangerous territory". This territory can include, as one Chinese magazine stated, not just kidnapping brides, but prostitution, rape and homosexuality. Urban crime is on the rise, and experts believe it is perpetrated by the migrant male workers living on the fringes of urban society. Chinese authorities worry that social deviancy will lead to political unrest. This is where security concerns come into play, both internal security within China and international security concerns with the United States and China's neighbors.

At this point we must underscore that there are other factors that influence the internal security of China or any other nation. The legitimacy of a government is based upon not just its authoritarian power, but ultimately on how well it meets the needs of its citizens. A government is charged with protecting a nation from attack, in effecting its national interests, and also with meeting certain needs of its peoples. China's economy is undergoing massive transformation to a market economy. There is dislocation among the citizens as they lose secure jobs with state-run enterprises. Unemployment is large. People are migrating and losing connections with their place of birth. The huge and mobile population taxes the environment. China has undertaken massive public works projects, at vast environmental cost, to provide water to its cities. Finally, diseases such as HIV are on the rise.

The sex imbalance in China feeds into all these factors that affect the legitimacy of the government. It is the young males who are losing in the new competitive market who seek to improve their competitive position vis-à-vis other males by engaging in violence against other males or in criminal activity to garner resources. Given the paucity of women and a normal sex drive, it is these men who frequent prostitutes thereby leading to the spread of HIV. HIV is further spread by intravenous drug use and shared needles among men living together. Given the demographics of China for the foreseeable future, it would seem that China can look forward to more socially disruptive behavior from its young men as well as more illness and fatal disease. This is not a prescription for the eventual liberalization of the authoritarian state and the building of democratic institutions.

As researchers Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer have pointed out in their article, "A Surplus of Men, A Deficit of Peace" (International Security, Spring 2002, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 5-38; the author is indebted to the authors for much of the factual information in this article): "there is only one short-term strategy for dealing with (this) problem (excess males): Reduce their number. There are several traditional ways to do so: Fight them, encourage their self-destruction, or export them." Longer term, the only solution is to reduce the sex ratio imbalance and that means reducing discrimination against women before and after birth.

China appears to be engaged in employing several of the above short-term strategies in dealing with its excess males. Public works projects are proceeding apace including a railroad into Tibet, natural gas pipelines from Western China to Shanghai and the water and river projects. Young men are attempting to emigrate legally and illegally mostly to the United States, but the travel logistics and difficulties are such that this practice will not reduce their numbers substantially.

Young men are being brought into the police and military services. The prospect of China "solving" its excess male problem by increasing its military forces is troubling on several counts. First, it increases the likelihood that China will actually use its military forces. The increased cost of the military may have to be justified by the top brass in one or more military campaigns. Likely targets include Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam. The pressure to find and capture eligible women as brides may prove irresistible for the men in the armed forces. In addition, as Hudson and Den Boer point out, it may be difficult for the authorities to control the young males in its police and military forces and they may become a threat to the regime.

Secondly, putting unattached males in the military serves to congregate them away from society, just as putting them to work on remote public works projects, and makes it even more unlikely that they will find a bride. Increased prostitution will follow, as perhaps will male/male sexual activity, and in either event, there will be an inevitable increase in the spread of AIDS and the death of the young men that China is worried about. This result, whether intended or not, will have consequences for Chinese society that one doubts would be welcome.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued a report in August 2002 that highlighted the threat that AIDS poses to the military forces of Asian nations. The report noted that infection rates during peacetime are 2 to 5 times higher in the military than in the civilian population. This can debilitate the ranks and lead to poor discipline. This can exacerbate the tendency of the young males in the military to be beyond the control of their superiors.

In addition, as has happened in virtually all societies with AIDS, the disease spreads quickly into the general population and to women via heterosexual sexual activity. Women currently constitute the majority of new cases of AIDS in many societies. If China intends through action or inaction to let AIDS kill off some of its "excess" males, it will soon find, as the NIC report noted, that the disease will be killing off its women as well. Women being a valuable "resource", this could potentially lead to a de-legitimization of the government.

In the short term, China is taking steps to remedy or at least ameliorate these problems. It has begun the sale of its version of AZT, an AIDS drug, as mentioned above. It has begun testing new recruits into the military for AIDS. It is beginning to provide sex education in its school (an inordinate number of Chinese do not know how AIDS is contracted). For example, a majority of Chinese in a recent survey did not know that HIV causes AIDS or that condom usage could help prevent the transmission of HIV. China is also beginning to modernize its blood collection system which has been responsible for a vast amount of HIV transmission.

Longer term China needs to address the status of its women. Only when this is done will the sex ratio right itself. The status of women in China is an issue that has been around for millennia and will not be changed quickly. The new Population and Family Planning Law is a step in the right direction. The new law bans the use of ultrasound machines for pre-natal sex determination and makes it illegal to provide sex selection abortions. In all probability this will drive sex-selection abortion underground rather than eliminate it. The Population Law continues to promote the use of long term contraceptives including the IUD and sterilization, to the detriment of condom promotion that can prevent AIDS. China is going to have to declare an all-out war against AIDS and the various ways it is transmitted. Dealing with sex in a more open manner must be a major part of the campaign as well as condom protection for men and women. Changes in sexual behavior are a must for any society attempting to fight AIDS.

Economic factors also come into play in trying to change cultural norms. China is in the beginnings of creating a social security system in order to provide old age security for parents who will hopefully rely less on a male heir to provide for them. As China industrializes there will be less reliance on male heirs to work on family farms.

In the meantime, young Chinese men and women will adapt in not always healthy ways to the reality that their parents have created. Even though the status of women will not immediately improve and may even decrease further as women are kidnapped and sold for brides, women will become more "valuable" on the marriage market and those that escape kidnapping will fetch a higher "bride price". Officials at the China Family Planning Association report that this is happening. The same officials also report that the differential in the ages of males and females at time of marriage is widening. Men are marrying younger and younger women since they cannot find brides of their own age. Prostitution will increase as will the diseases that go with it, including HIV/AIDS.

China will remain for the foreseeable future a high sex ratio society. As Hudson and Den Boer concluded:

"High sex-ratio societies, denoting a very low status for women, cannot be expected to emulate normal sex-ratio societies either in terms of their form of government or in terms of their tendency towards peacefulness.

All we have found suggests that high sex-ratio societies in contexts of unequal resource distribution and generalized resource scarcity breed chronic violence and persistent social disorder and corruption. Though these phenomena certainly exist as well in societies without high sex ratios,…high sex ratio societies present an unmistakable aggravating and amplifying effect, leading to disruption on a larger scale than might be possible in societies with lower sex ratios.

In conclusion, exaggerated gender inequality is a potentially serious source of scarcity and insecurity."

It is in the national security interests of the United States to assist China in dealing with these problems. While China is viewed as a military threat, the United States can do much to lessen that threat by means other than escalating its military and strategic presence and capabilities in Asia. It is in U.S. interests to have a stable and secure China, not a China that will have a tendency to throw its excess men into military action or that will have renegade males destabilize the government and take control of its military might.

The United States must help China deal with its sex ratio problem. This means dealing with the status of its women. This in turn means that the United States must deal with gender issues, including the role that family planning plays in Chinese women's lives.

Discrimination against girls is perpetrated in China by both its men and women. This is not a male-only problem. The problem is that both men and women do not value women. It is women who go for pre-natal sonograms to see if the fetus is male or female, and it is women who seek and have abortions to terminate the pregnancy if the fetus is female. This is not say that their husbands are not equal or dominating actors in this drama, but it is to say that women play their role too. These are not unintended pregnancies that get terminated by abortion. These are intended pregnancies, or rather pregnancies that are tentative until the sex of the fetus is determined, and then the pregnancy becomes either wanted or unwanted very quickly.

The sex of a child in China determines his or her value to the parents. It will take a revolutionary shift in attitude to get Chinese parents to adopt the philosophy behind the agreements reached at the UN Conferences in Cairo and Beijing, both of which China agreed to, that girls and women must be given the opportunity to determine their own value and that cultural and societal roadblocks in the way of this must be dismantled. Key to being able to determine one's own future is the ability to decide when and whether to have children. Reproductive freedom is seen as the key to women's empowerment. The problem in China is not so much that women don't have reproductive freedom; rather it is the way that women are exercising their freedom in the context of China's culture that is troublesome.

We know from reports that some Chinese women are either forced or coerced or accept incentives that alter their reproductive decisions. There is also some forced abortion and sterilization. There is a continued push for long-term contraceptives under medical control and not under women's control. Hopefully all of these will diminish over the years under the new Population Law. The Bush Administration alas used these outrages as an excuse to make a political point with its domestic anti-abortion supporters when it cut off funds for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because it funds family planning work in China. UNFPA has taken the lead in implementing voluntary family planning programs in China, and it in fact works in some provinces where forced abortions occur. This was reason enough for the Bush Administration to cut off the funds. Under the provisions of the appropriation, none of the US funds could be used in China anyway, and under the terms of the Global Gag Rule, also imposed by the Bush Administration, the China Family Planning Association would have been ineligible for US foreign aid funds as well since it is an abortion provider and referrer. Since the deed is done, at least until a change of Administration, one can hope that the loss of $34 million for the UN program, which was quickly reimbursed by the European Community, will lead to a faster abolition of forced abortion in China.

But as serious as that problem is, it is not the main problem. The imbalance in sex ratio is the more important problem, and UNFPA was taking the lead in developing programs to rectify the problem through giving Chinese women more power to make decisions about childbearing. But it will take a major culture change implemented by the Chinese themselves in order to rid its society of bias against women. The problem is too massive to be dealt with by piecemeal programs by UN agencies or US foundations. A coordinated attack by foreign aid funders and the Chinese Government is what is required. The rapid industrialization of China and its transformation into a free market economy may solve much of the problem. It has been argued that women possess more of the skills needed in the New Economy in other countries. Perhaps the same will be true in China.

China must scrap its One Child Policy. It is counter-productive. Given the freedom to have as many children as they want, Chinese parents should be able to have a male should they so desire, without resorting to extra-legal methods to insure a male child that skew the sex ratio.

This is an issue that cannot be left to the US State Department and the Agency for International development and the United Nations. The US Defense Department and military strategists must weigh in also. The excess of men in China is a strategic threat and must be recognized as such. Future US dealings with China must be predicated on the reduction of the sex ratio. For the next generation the deed is done. The excess males have already been born. It is the generation after that we can collectively balance out.