The popular press blames China’s massive male/female population imbalance on the nation’s infamous One Child Policy. The truth? China’s male/female imbalance is an ugly, centuries-old problem.
This is the first of a series of posts on China’s demographic future.
China’s thirty year population control program – the One Child Policy – entered a new phase in late 2015 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced that it would transition to a Two Child Policy in the coming years. The Chinese government described the change as a measure to “optimize the demographic structure” and correct the country’s growing population imbalances. The One Child Policy – implemented in 1980 – has been blamed for these imbalances, which include the country’s 40 million excess males, near-zero population growth, and a long-term decline in the number of working age citizens.
But the underlying story is much more complex. China’s deep demographic problems predate the 1949 Communist Revolution. While it can be argued that the One Child Policy has worsened these problems, there’s another conclusion that can be drawn: Had China not implemented a One Child Policy, the male/female imbalance would still be a significant problem today.
Bare Branches, Then and Now
“Bare branches” is the term used in the Chinese media to describe the country’s 40 million excess males. These men are a troubling social phenomena, many of them the only child of parents who dutiful followed the CCP’s population directives. Overseas, some have speculated that the frustrations and resentments of the bare branches will eventually drive violent, expansionary policies overseas.
The conventional wisdom is that the bare branches are just one of the unintended consequences of the One Child Policy. It’s not true. China’s population has been out of balance for centuries.
The starting point for hard data about China’s demographics is 1950, one year after the Chinese Revolution and the start of consistent UN population statistics.
(The accuracy of any Chinese economic and population statistics is itself a major subject. While it’s only been in the latter half of the twentieth century that there have been country-wide censuses, these have been subject to miscalculation, misrepresentation and political bias. This series will generally use UN statistics. While the UN’s numbers can also be challenged, for the purposes of comparison, consistency and trend-spotting they’re the best source available.)
Consider the statistics for China in 1950. They show a population that had endured a half-century of nearly continuous foreign invasion, occupation, insurrection, and civil war. During World War II alone total Chinese casualties – military as well as civilian deaths – have been estimated at between 15 and 20 million people.
Even after five decades in which millions of young men were ground-up in ongoing military conflict, China’s male/female ratio still stood at 1.07, a figure much higher than comparable regions of the less developed world. The ratio is consistent with surveys from the 1930s, and anecdotal reports from earlier. Put another way, in 1950 there were already twenty million bare branches in China.
Where did all the women go? In short, they were killed.
The phrase used in academic circles is “female infanticide”, and it’s been part of Chinese cultural norms for centuries. References to the practice go back to the third century BCE and continue into the modern era in the form of anecdotal accounts and government measures to address the practice. There’s no secret here – researchers both in and out of China have incorporated female infanticide into their demographic narratives and noted its continued role in early twentieth century family practice.
Three factors wove female infanticide into the fabric of Chinese society – cultural and legal norms, pre-industrial mortality rates, and famine:
Traditional Chinese family values emphasize the paramount importance of the continuation of the family line and the singular role of the male heir. Male heirs and only male heirs could eventually assume family leadership, care for their parents in their old age, and continue the family line.
While sons were critical to the family’s future, daughters were considered excess. If they survived, they’d be soon given up in marriage. With no role in the family’s future daughters were an economic burden.
While these traditions put daughters at social risk, what made many families turn to infanticide was centuries of high rates of male and female infant mortality, short life spans, and periodic famine on a local and regional level. In this brutal environment, a family living at a subsistence level that wanted to perpetuate its line and care for its elders did so by feeding its sons and killing its daughters.
Infanticide came in many forms – drowning at birth, abandonment, neglectful care during infancy, limited access to nutrition in favor of male children, outright murder. Over the centuries Chinese emperors and governments have condemned and outlawed the practice, but none (including the Chinese Communist Party) ever made serious, systematic efforts to stop it.
The practical impact of this is that bare branches have been part of the nation’s demographics for centuries. Surveys, admittedly incomplete, going back to the 1600s estimate that anywhere from 4% to 16% of men by the age 40 had not married. While this number is not dramatically different from estimates in Western Europe at the same time, what’s different is the reason. In Western Europe, there were significant numbers of unmarried men and women at the same time, implying that marriage remained an option for both. In contrast, in China virtually all the women were married. Marriage was not an option for the bare branches of pre-revolutionary China.
The moral implications of widespread female infanticide and its impact on Chinese society deserve discussion, although history is replete with equally reprehensible examples of similar practices elsewhere in the world. Female infanticide is a particular problem in present-day India. What’s relevant in this review is that as the Chinese Communist Party assumed control of the country, a cultural and demographic pattern had already been long established.
Bare Branches – a 1980s Snapshot
Fast forward to 1980 as the Chinese Communist Party wraps up its deliberations on population policy and promulgates the One Child Policy. In the thirty years since the Revolution the male/female ratio improved – from near 1.08 to just over 1.05.
What’s remarkable about this small, but significant correction towards global norms is that it took place during a period of enormous economic and political upheaval. The CCP’s economic experiments in the late 1950s and early 1960s nearly destroyed the agricultural sector and led to the Great Famine (1958-1961) that killed an estimated thirty million people. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1971), essentially a civil war, dismantled essential institutions, injected even more uncertainty into an already broken economy, and killed at least two million people. Only by the late 1970s was a sense of normalcy returning to daily life.
It’s hard to find academic scholarship explaining why the male/female imbalance improved from 1950 to 1980, but what can be said with certainty is that government policy was not a direct factor. It was not until the 1970s that government efforts to limit family size began in earnest. Health care and infant mortality did improve during this time, and as well the CCP undertook a widespread effort to raise the status of women, but it’s not known if these had any impact.
The One Child Policy Begins
Announced in 1980 after over a decade of debate among CCP leaders, the One Child Policy was never written into Chinese law. By limiting population – which at that time was undergoing high rates of growth – stresses on agriculture could be reduced and per capita national income could be maximized. The One Child policy was considered a key part of the CCP’s economic development program, and its implementation made an important part of regional and local government throughout China. Thus began the biggest social engineering experiment in history.
The rules were simple: Chinese couples (with some exceptions) were limited to having one child over the course of their marriages. To encourage compliance, local family planning committees were set up which in turn were supported by government media campaigns, personal incentives and widespread availability of contraceptives. To assure compliance, local and regional government officials were evaluated based on the success in meeting a wide range of metrics, including in family planning objectives as well as meeting broader, per capita targets for goals such as government revenue.
Despite the sometimes heroic tone of official propaganda, violations of the policy were brutally enforced by family planning committees and local government officials. Forced late term abortions and involuntary sterilizations were common, often accompanied by violence, imprisonment and workplace retaliation. Second and third children were punished with fines, and if fines couldn’t be paid the children were often denied education and residency rights. Adding to this was a twist made possible by medical technology – wide use of fetal ultrasound enabled the voluntary abortions of female fetuses by couples desperate that their single child be a son.
Bare Branches in the Twenty-first Century
There’s no question that thirty-five years of the One-Child-Policy has worsened the bare branches problem. The absolute number of bare branches has doubled and the male/female ratio has crept back up, although it is still below the levels recorded in 1950.
In addition, the One-Child-Policy has changed the character of the bare branches problem.
Surveys made in pre-revolutionary China estimate that that prior to 1950 the average Chinese family household numbered between 4.8 and 5.8 people.
By 2012, that number had declined to 3.02. While some of this decline was certainly caused by wide scale migration of rural workers into the cities (single person households have significantly increased as well), the One-Child-Policy was a big part of the story.
A bare branch in pre-revolutionary China was likely one of several sons, and the chances were good that one of those would marry and continue the family line.
In twenty-first century China, a bare branch will more likely be a single son. The One Child Policy has essentially assured that this generation of bare branches will truly be the end millions of family lines. This is most painfully apparent in the rural “bare branch villages”, communities in which the young women have left to seek work (and better marriage prospects), in the China’s booming cities. Millions of male farmers have remained behind, and they are generally poor, uneducated and unable to scrape together the increasing bride price demanded by the parents of the few young women remaining.
Looking ahead, there’s little prospect of change.
The UN’s most recent forecasts, made before the Two Child Policy announcement, project the population imbalance will continue and may even worsen in the next thirty-five years. While it might be thought that the Two Child Policy would be expected to improve matters, there are compelling reasons to expect that China will continue to suffer from extraordinary population imbalances.
A Thought Experiment Made Real
Consider a thought experiment. What would happens if a population of several hundred million people in a developing country were allowed to make their own decisions about fertility? To make the experiment comparable to the Chinese experience, add a tradition of female infanticide, gradual access to contraceptives and (later), ultrasound technology that enables sex-selective abortion.
This is no thought experiment – this is India.
A full discussion of Indian versus Chinese demographics would fill a book. For the purposes of this review, what can be said is that the two countries have had very similar demographic trajectories. Both countries have had a long tradition of female infanticide. Since 1950 both have seen declines in their Total Fertility Rates (births per mother) and significant improvements in infant mortality; both have had government sponsored programs to make contraceptives widely available; and both have seen fetal ultrasound technology used to enable sex-selective abortions. The major difference is that only China put the full coercive power of the state behind a draconian birth control policy.
Today both countries have significant male/female population imbalances – India more so than China. But the data also leads to a pair of important conclusions:
Had China never implemented the One Child Policy, in 2015 the nation would still be facing a “bare branches” crisis.
Looking ahead, a Two Child Policy, or even the complete end of population control, will likely have little impact on China’s population imbalances.
These conclusions imply that Chinese parents now and in the future will continue to (1) favor sons and (2) actively prevent the birth of daughters. The results of the past sixty-five years of Communist Party rule and parental practice make it difficult to assert otherwise.
A Different Kind of Security Challenge
Some believe that China’s bare branches represent a local, and even global security threat. This narrative contends that the bare branches – with no prospects for marriage or purpose in life – will increasingly resort to anti-social activity (crime, drug use), and/or will create political pressures that favor nationalistic, expansionist foreign policies. While some studies have linked higher male/female sex ratios in China to modest increases in crime, statistical correlation is not causation, and the numbers themselves aren’t so compelling to suggest the imminent collapse of social order.
The reality is that China’s bare branches are made up of largely poor, under-educated rural farmers. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario by which these already disenfranchised (and aging) men will rise up as one to challenge the policy-making power of the Chinese Communist Party.
If the Chinese Communist Party is facing a threat, it’s that growing discussion about the implications of its population control policies is undermining its legitimacy. Every Chinese blog post, news story, wechat text, and private conversation about population imbalances, “bare branches”, “little emperors”, “leftover women” and a host of other related issues raises fundamental questions about the CCP’s right to control the fertility decisions of its people. If the Party has no right to tell people how to live their lives, what other aspects of its iron-clad rule will the general population want to challenge?