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The ascent of Y

19 January 2012 By John Foley

China’s boys will worry the world. Last year in the world’s most populous nation 118 boys were born for every 100 girls. That’s more than the 105 ratio nature intended, and adds to a current surplus of 34 million potentially unattachable males. If the current birth rate were to stick, a 1.3 billion population could have 100 million of what Chinese refer to as “broken branches”.

Boys have always been prized in the Middle Kingdom. Three millennia ago, the Book of Songs advised parents to give newborn boys jade, but let girls sleep on the floor and play with broken tiles. Where England produced Elizabeth and Victoria, and Vietnam the Trung Sisters, China’s only bona fide empress was largely reviled baby-killer Wu Zetian, in the seventh century.

The one-child policy, a panicky response to a doubling of the population between 1955 and 1977, made things much worse. China’s boy-girl birth ratio jumped from its Mao-era range of 103-107 boys to 100 girls, as parents took matters into their own hands. By 2000 the ratio was 120 to 100, the highest in the world according to the CIA, and it hasn’t fallen much since.

Demographers scratch their heads over what it means. Studies in India, which has a similar problem, have suggested that a male imbalance brings more crime. But then men are also more likely to be economic migrants, and poor. South Korea birthed too many boys in the early 1990s, but campaigns and anti sex-selection measures brought the ratio down from 116 to 107.

For China, it could be economic Viagra. China’s housing bubble has been inflated partly by the assumption that a man in his 20s who doesn’t own a flat is unmarriageable. The quest to win a mate might also encourage entrepreneurship. Further down the economic ladder, unattached men might be more willing to take on dangerous work, and toil for more hours a day.

The problem is that China’s maleness doesn’t sit well with its other destabilising trends: too little energy, too little food, and too little land. Those all pose threats to China’s 40-year run of peaceable growth. Without a major change of thinking, an end to the one-child policy in the coming decade or wholesale female immigration, China’s broken branches could topple the whole tree.


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