The Gender Gap in China

By Timothy Spangler

January 23, 2014 6 min read

The U.S. hit TV show "How I Met Your Mother" is unlikely to see a Chinese version any time soon. A grim consequence of the one-child policy over the past three decades is a significant imbalance between the number of men and the number of women in China. The national statistics office reported this week that the gap amounts to approximately 34 million more men.

The Chinese have become quite adept at capitalism over the past 30 years, so the iron law of "supply and demand" will not come as a surprise to those men unable to find wives in the near future.

The social, political and economic consequences of this escalating demographic trend could have significant effects on China if its leadership in Beijing is unable or unwilling to mitigate them. For example, because having a place to live in an enviable neighborhood can give a would-be suitor some meaningful advantage in courting his potential bride, the price of real estate in urban centers continues to go up. Without a family to tether men down to responsibilities and civic virtues, crime and socially undesirable behaviors are increasing. With Chinese appearing every day more and more ready to question their leaders, either directly in protests or indirectly through online posts, Beijing is increasingly concerned that a constituency of "angry young men" is building and that the men's dissatisfaction with their own prospects could lead them to become an active threat to their hold on power.

This is in addition to two other important consequences of the one-child policy. On the one hand, much hatred is incurred by parents who are forced to abort pregnancies that would put them in violation of the law. On the other hand, a thriving market has developed for babies that have been either sold by or stolen from their birth parents.

In many ways, the one-child policy provides a unique prism into so many aspects of life in contemporary China. Each cause and effect shines a bright light on a different aspect of Chinese society in the process of unraveling.

First and foremost, the repeated preference for male offspring in Chinese culture is borne out again and again across the country. The one-child policy doesn't, in and of itself, lead to a gender imbalance. Instead, when the ability to procreate is artificially constrained, underlying prejudices will ultimately drive this incredibly important decision that, once made, can't be unmade.

Second, the lack of any meaningful social safety net in contemporary China further reinforces the preference for boys in the tenuous belief that sons will better provide for them in their old age. Given the escalating dowry that Chinese brides are apparently able to attract because of this artificial distortion in the market, some parents may begin to regret their impulsive choices.

The Communist Party elites are already in a heightened state of concern, given the surge in demonstrations and protests and violence by their subjects. In recent weeks, there has been a concerted effort by the authorities to come down hard on activists and would-be dissenters. Critics of the regime are being arrested and charged and tried for a variety of legal infractions. Some ascribe these aggressive steps to mounting panic among senior leaders that the vast country — still overwhelmingly impoverished, despite steady progress among middle-class people who live along the coast — could be slipping out of their control. We witnessed here in 1989 how quickly totalitarian power can be undone when a significant number of individuals become convinced that there is a better option.

As long as any form of dissent is seen as a threat against the state, the growing numbers of "angry young men" will hover on Beijing's horizon as a potential risk to internal security. The conundrum here is to determine what steps, if any, Chinese leaders could take at this stage to address those complaints.

Members of the New Citizens movement are facing lengthy prison sentences simply for making the request that China be governed in accordance with its existing constitution. Not a particularly radical or revolutionary proposal! By contrast, the growing gender imbalance could produce in the near term a cadre of men who feel sufficiently betrayed by Beijing that peaceful, nonviolent displays will be insufficient. Although steps are being taken to gradually liberalize the one-child policy and grant ordinary Chinese men and women more freedom to make for themselves the decision on how many children to have, the existing imbalance will remain for the foreseeable future.

Underlying recent dissent in China is the belief that the government is unaccountable to its citizens for its own actions. Beijing needs to demonstrate that it is listening — and preferably sooner rather than later. There are at least 34 million young men who may have difficult questions for their leaders, and eventually, those questions will need to be answered.

Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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