China's surplus of sons: A geopolitical time bomb

Ending its one-child policy could ease instability.

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The Olympics are around the corner. Just as qualifying athletes are training hard for the big event, China seeks to put its best foot forward in response to critics at home and abroad.

Among the criticisms is a quiet but serious challenge: the artificially high number of Chinese men compared with Chinese women. China should act expeditiously to correct the social and legal pressures that have converged to create this problem.

"Son preference" is a deep-seated, widespread problem in many cultures. In many parts of the world, having a son is integral to one's future financial and social wellbeing. Recent articles have tried to shed light on the problem in India – putting much blame on the ultrasound machines women use to determine the sex of their unborn children in order to decide whether they should abort a female fetus.

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In China, however, the problem takes on a frightfully larger scope when "son preference" meets the notorious One Child policy. When the government only allows one child, it puts immense pressure on Chinese parents to determine the sex of their child in the womb, and terminate the pregnancy if it is a girl.

The unintended consequences of this government policy are staggering. The proportion of male births to female births (the "sex ratio") is not merely unusual, but alarming. Worldwide, there are already 100 million girls "missing" due to sex-selective abortion and female infanticide, according to the English medical journal The Lancet. Fifty million of these girls are thought to be from China. In many provinces, the sex ratio at birth is between 120 to 130 boys for every 100 girls; the natural number is about 104. What will happen in future decades when these boys grow up and look for wives?

Among other things, such a situation would exacerbate the growing problem of sexual trafficking, which will surely have its hardest effect on the most vulnerable in the developing world as China grows richer.

Another serious threat is to regional stability and, by extension, international security. As Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer recently wrote in their prize-winning work on demography and security, "Bare Branches," surplus male populations in a region often result in violence – through banditry, rioting, or militarization. The 6 to 5 male-female ratio in China means there are a lot of men who will not be able to start families. If history is any guide, they will either find less savory things to occupy their time, or find women through equally unsavory means.

China should work to prevent sex-selective abortions and fix the gender balance, not only to avoid social and political instability, but also because women and men are equal. The fundamental right to life exists regardless of one's gender.

The means to correct China's gender imbalance will hopefully prove as peaceable and wholesome as those being undertaken by Korea, whose government, religious, and cultural leaders have worked together for years to increase the value of girls in their culture and erase "son preference." While China is engaged in the early stages of similar efforts, it can bolster them through changes in policy. An excellent step would be to enact and enforce laws that ban sex-selective abortion by targeting prenatal ultrasound use. Likewise, certain perceived economic causes for China's tradition of son preference could be undercut by changes in China's social-welfare networks. Most effective in balancing the sex ratio and affirming the rights of Chinese girls would be to abandon the odious one-child norm.

A tale from antiquity illustrates the potential tragedy of gender imbalance. Ancient Rome began as a refuge for fugitives, full of young, high-spirited men but utterly lacking in women. So Romulus held an athletic festival and encouraged guests to bring their wives and daughters. At a set time, able-bodied Romans seized the assembled women in an event now known as the Rape of the Sabine Women.

As China hosts the world, the world should make clear to the Chinese government how abhorrent its one-child policy is, as are its resultant sex-selective abortions. Let us take advantage of this opportunity and help the Chinese learn from the past to avoid demographic catastrophe and geopolitical instability in their future.

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