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China's One-Child Policy May Be Making the Country More Violent

A 1 percent increase in the ratio between the sexes leads to a 5 percent increase in the crime rate

AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to the one-child policy, China is the most gender imbalanced country in the world—with 117.78 boys for every 100 girls. In 2012, the Chinese government estimated that the country had 40 million more males than females, with the difference growing larger every year. If China’s sex ratio holds steady, there will be 55 million “extra” males by 2020 (so says this estimate).1 

China’s government has made reducing the gender imbalance a national policy priority—but much of the societal damage may already be done. In a recent study published in Asian Population Studies, economists Jane Golley at Australian National University and Rod Tyers at the University of Western Australia found that having a higher proportion of males contributes to higher levels of savings. (The thinking is that a bigger bank account makes for a more desirable marital prospect.) In the long term, excess savings depress the “real exchange rate” (that is, how much goods and services are worth in one country versus another), damaging the global economy. 

A higher proportion of men means greater savings and a lower real exchange rate. (Source: Asian Population Studies, Vol. 10, Issue 2, 2014.)

Having fewer women (researchers often refer to China’s “missing women”) also reduces the growth rate of the population and, thus, of the labor force. 

But the most troublesome consequence of the gender imbalance is the increase in China’s violent crimes. Golley and Tyers are building off existing research, which confirms that China’s crime rate has doubled over the last 20 years and that incidents of social unrest have risen from about 40,000 in 2001 to over 90,000 in 2009. 

China’s imbalanced sex ratio is likely a leading cause: A 2008 study by the Institute for the Study of Labor found that a 1 percent increase in the sex ratio leads to a 5 percent increase in the crime rate. And regions with the most male-biased sex ratios also have more gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution, rape, bride abduction, and human trafficking. Using demographic and economic projections, Golley and Tyers concluded that gender “re-balancing” could bring about a reduction in crime and a rise in productivity. 

Perhaps aware that this all still has a simplistic ring, Golley and Tyers cite anthropological studies which show that in societies with surplus men, males have a greater tendency to engage in non-productive and risky “wife-seeking” behavior. And this theory isn’t new:In the 2004 book, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population, Andrea den Boer and Valerie Hudson showed that high male sex ratios can also lead to more authoritarian forms of government as authorities try to crack down on crime. Arguing along similar lines, German scholar Gunnar Heinsohn points out that European imperial expansion after 1500, Japanese imperial expansion after 1914, and cold war–era revolutions in Algeria, El Salvador, and Lebanon were all the result of male youth “bulges.” Niall Ferguson has offered similar theories, that a surplus of young men will lead China to domestic instability or militaristic expansionism. 

The Chinese government isn’t just standing idly by. In order to mitigate the negative social effects of having too many unmatched males, the Communist Party has allied with dating websites and matchmaking agencies to promote the notion that being a “leftover” (i.e., unmarried) woman is the worst imaginable fate. Not content to just be pawns in this whole debate, women aren’t standing by, either. Some have started referring tothemselves with a term that sounds like “leftover” but means “triumphant” instead.

  1. Economist Avraham Ebenstein, a visiting scholar at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, found that Chinese families simply view a son as worth more in future monetary value. Ultrasound gender identification and illegal sex-selective abortion make it possible for families to get rid of daughters in order to make room for sons.