UCA News

China’s skewed sex ratio is a warning sign

There are signs that the situation caused by the male-biased sex ratio is a cause for worry
A woman holds a child as she walks across a street in Hangzhou, in China's eastern Zhejiang province on Jan. 17. China's population shrank last year for the first time in more than six decades and the world's most populous country faces a looming demographic crisis

A woman holds a child as she walks across a street in Hangzhou, in China's eastern Zhejiang province on Jan. 17. China's population shrank last year for the first time in more than six decades and the world's most populous country faces a looming demographic crisis. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 04, 2023 04:23 AM GMT
Updated: May 02, 2023 08:54 AM GMT

Here in Japan, possibly like many other places, there is a flood of news and reports preoccupied with the decline of population notably in Japan as well as China and Korea.

Japan’s population started to decline 15 years ago (in 2008) and the trend appears to be irreversible and deeply entrenched.  Korea’s population started to decline in 2020 and seems to follow Japan’s trend, though in a more conspicuous fashion. Likewise, the Chinese population will also start to decline very soon, following Japanese and Korean tracks.  

As the population is a significant factor in a nation’s power, it is understandable that many media are paying enthusiastic attention to the decline of the population as an inseparable element of “the rise and fall” of nations.

However, there seems to be one important angle that the media by and large overlooks. That's the sex ratio at birth or the gender gap in the number of babies born. This angle is particularly important while analyzing today’s China.

In China, in 2021, the number of male births per 100 female births was 112 (hereinafter referred to as “gender ratio at birth”), meaning that boys born remarkably outnumbered girls born in China.

In terms of this unbalanced gender ratio at birth, China is “No.1” in the world, with some runners-up behind it like India, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and so forth. Most other countries are further behind.

Undeniably the Chinese ratio (i.e. 112) looks “unnatural” or “sex-selective.” The natural ratio at birth, by the way, is supposed to be at around 105, which is the level to assure the gender ratio in adulthood, taking into account that male infants are more susceptible to deadly diseases than females.

G7 countries by and large sustain this natural level, signifying that sex-selective measures are rarely taken. Against this backdrop, I repeat, the Chinese ratio should be deemed “unnatural” and “sex-biased,” and is sometimes referred to as a “skewed sex ratio” at birth. 

This excess or bias may well be attributable to three major factors: sociological, cultural, and religious elements which are conducive to gender bias such as “son preference” or “daughter aversion”; technological and medical progress which facilitate the sex-selective measures to be practicable; and the “one-child policy” which further helped the fuller scale materialization of “daughter aversion” though it was amended in 2016 to allow two children.

So, what are the sociological implications of male excess?

In short, the excess of boys at birth will entail an excess of men looking for brides and a shortage of available women a few decades later. Experts denominate this unbalance as a “marriage squeeze.”

This squeeze looks even more serious in the coming years in China because the gender ratios at birth around 2000-05 were at around 118-120 – much more skewed than 112 in the year 2021. Hence, the marriage squeeze will further aggravate around 2025 to 2030, reflecting the unbalance at birth 25-30 years ago.

In countries where the marriage squeeze is very serious, be it China, India, or elsewhere, in general terms, it may engender various social problems, often at the expense of women.

The problems may include, inter alia, malnutrition or poor education for girls, mistreatment of girls, disappearance or trafficking of women, increase in sex-oriented violence and crimes, and so forth, some experts argue.

For instance, in the past decades, many women were kidnapped by traffickers from neighboring Laos and Vietnam to be “sold” in Southern China to fill the marriage squeeze brought by the “one-child policy.”

It shows that the victims of this imbalance were not limited to the Chinese. Many women in the southern neighborhood were also believed to be victimized.

Besides, the poor and unprivileged men at the bottom of society tend to suffer from this squeeze most seriously and their dissatisfaction and frustration should never be condoned. These forces, all combined, may well weaken social stability.

In this respect, the latest situation in China is a cause for worry; the Chinese sometimes demonstrate their revulsion or anger vis-à-vis the international society through official statements, media, or social networking websites, in an excessively strong, aggressive and harsh manner, which might well destabilize even their external relations.

I have an impression that their excessiveness may reflect the frustration and dissatisfaction felt at the bottom of society – the frustration stemming from the marriage squeeze, besides poverty, inequality, and joblessness.

All in all, while talking about today’s China, it may be worth paying due attention to the unbalanced gender ratio at birth and marriage squeeze.

*Ueno Kagefumi is a former Japanese Ambassador to the Holy See (2006-10). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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