The 34 million extra men pose serious social risks, but some just see a matchmaking bonanza.
- By Alexa OlesenAlexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.
“Their economy is depressed but beautiful women are running rampant,” the state-run Beijing News reported Jan. 22 in a story suggesting that Ukrainian women could be the solution to China’s woman shortage. The piece, illustrated with charts, bubbles, and cartoon illustrations of lonely Chinese men, was a breezy attempt to make light of China’s missing women and the severe gender imbalance caused by couples aborting female fetuses in favor of boys. So widespread is the practice that it has badly skewed the country’s sex ratio: The global average is around 105 boys born for every 100 girls; but in China last year, just over 115 boys were born for every 100 girls.
The problem has been brewing since sonogram technology was introduced to China in the 1980s, allowing families to determine a baby’s gender during the first few months of pregnancy. Combined with the country’s restrictive family-planning policies — until recently, most urban families were only allowed a single child in order to curtail population growth — and a traditional preference for sons, the newfound ability to practice sex-selective abortion has resulted in one of the world’s highest gender imbalances. The topic flared anew in the public mind after the National Bureau of Statistics announced the latest population figures on Jan. 20, noting that at the end of 2014 China had 701 million men and 667 million women, a shortfall of nearly 34 million women.* The bureau didn’t provide a breakdown, but previous research shows that most of China’s missing women are among those born since 1985.
To address the problem, China has resorted to propaganda campaigns extolling the virtues of daughters and offering cash incentives for couples who have them. These measures have spurred more female births, but not enough — China’s gender imbalance is still “the most serious in the world and has lasted for the longest time and affected the largest number of people,” China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission said in a Jan. 21 statement.
Rather than dwelling on the fact that sex-selective abortions continue despite a government ban, Chinese media interpreted the sex ratio as a threat to men, not women. On Jan. 21, web giant Sina’s arm in Henan, China’s most populous province, wondered aloud on social media platform Weibo whether the news was “heart-stopping” and exhorted bachelors to “start making an effort!” Meanwhile, a Beijing statistician sharing the latest figures to his Weibo account wrote, “Tomorrow I am going to get my son to hurry up and find a girlfriend at his elementary school.” Beijing News even suggested that Ukrainian women could be a solution to China’s problem. The story kicked off with a question: “Just how hard is it for a diaosi,” slang for young bachelors of modest means, “to find a wife?” After explaining the severe imbalance that the ratio represents, it added that Chinese brides are a popular “export” to many countries such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States, a trend it said had depleted China’s supply of eligible women still further. It offered a chart of the best destinations around the globe for Chinese men to find spouses. Japan and South Korea were particularly promising, the paper said, claiming that 26 percent of South Korean women who took foreign spouses in 2012 chose Chinese men. The trend is bound to grow, the argument went, since popular Korean television actress Park Chae-rim married her Chinese actor beau, Gao Ziqi, in September 2014.
Lighthearted joking filled the comments section, with most ignoring the underlying factors leading to the bachelor oversupply. Some netizens viewed the gender imbalance as a boon for the gay community, others as a useful pressure valve for those who aren’t interested in marriage anyway. There are, in other words, plenty of fish in the sea, at least outside China.
Therese Hesketh, a professor of global health at University College London, told Foreign Policy via email from eastern China’s Zhejiang province that many ordinary Chinese believe that “aborting a girl is simply a choice made by a couple — and they are entitled to this.” Hesketh said that when she lectures in China, many audience members “seem to just accept selective abortions,” and she has students who admit they would abort female fetuses in favor of a boy. She added that many students attribute this stance to parental pressure.
China is not alone in these cultural predilections. Indian social scientist Ravinder Kaur wrote in an August 2013 paper that “the common response” in both China and India “when the connection between sex selection and bride shortage is pointed out is that rather than allow daughters to be born, they would resort to importing brides.” Kaur also wrote that bride shortages in China and India can lead to “kidnap marriage,” which includes “deception and enticement” and “luring women for marriage into high sex ratio areas.”
For its part, the Chinese government is still campaigning against sex-selective abortions. Following the release of the latest statistics, the National Health and Family Planning Commission revealed details of its latest initiative to curb sex-selective abortion: harsher penalties for agencies and individuals who send blood samples from expectant mothers abroad for testing to determine the gender of the woman’s fetus. Clinics and hospitals in China can perform sonograms on expectant mothers, but are barred from revealing the gender of the baby, a restriction that has given rise to black market sonogram testing (including providers who perform the exam in the back seat of a woman’s car). Chinese agencies that offer to come to a woman’s home will draw blood, pack it in dry ice, and then mail or carry the sample across the border to Hong Kong or elsewhere for testing at hospitals. The commission has promised severe punishments for anyone caught in the act. But that hardly seems like enough to solve the underlying problem, any more than Ukrainian brides.
*Correction, Jan. 28, 2015: The National Bureau of Statistics announced that at the end of 2014, China had 701 million men and 667 million women, creating a shortfall of nearly 34 million women. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said China had 700 million men and just 667 women, resulting in a shortfall of more than 33 million women. (Return to reading.)
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