Over the course of the past few decades, China’s government and the population at large have slowly begun to understand the severity of this country’s gender imbalance phenomenon. According to what I’ve learned in our textbook this summer, as well as some knowledge gained from Stephen Roach’s “The Next China”, a course I took at Yale this past fall, the male-female ratio in China is dangerously out of whack, to the extent of 118 men for every 100 women. And this ratio is even higher in certain urban areas. While some might imagine that the importance of this type of societal issue would pale in comparison to larger, more pressing economic and political problems, many experts believe that this phenomenon has legitimate potential to threaten the stability of Chinese society, and it is my personal belief that the quick and efficient resolution of China’s sex-ratio imbalance will prove to be one of the Communist Party’s most important and challenging tasks in the next few years.
So where does this imbalance come from, and how has it developed into such a serious problem? As with many modern social issues in China, we can trace the roots of the sex-ratio imbalance back to China’s traditional beliefs, namely 重男轻女, a social concept that literally translates to something along the lines of “important-male-unimportant-female”. For reasons mainly based in economics and sociology, Chinese culture has always been male-dominated. Ancient Chinese society was dominated primarily by agriculture, and male children were always seen as an economic blessing, helping their fathers in the fields and providing additional income for the family. In modern society, male children have taken on a relatively different economic role – caring for their aging parents. When a daughter marries into another family, she is literally viewed as becoming a part of her husband’s family, and her contact with her original parents and family is relatively limited. On the other hand, male children are expected to bear the economic burden of their retired and aging parents. With pension plans and a health care system still very much in the midst of development, many parents rely on their children to provide food and shelter in the later years, and in some respects this is seen as a form of retribution – parents provide years of care in a child’s early years, and when the parents grow old, it becomes the (male) child’s responsibility to bear that burden. From a social perspective, the Chinese place a great deal of importance on family bloodlines, and as is the case in most, if not all cultures, it is the male child that carries the family name.
This type of patriarchal social structure might not seem all that foreign even in the world’s most progressive nations, but it is important to note that the effects of this concept go beyond the types of wage and power imbalances one might find in America or Europe. In fact, up until recently, many Chinese parents were still taking advantage of modern technologies such as ultrasound to determine the gender of their children, often choosing abortion upon finding out that the child was a girl. In the past few years, the government has issued a series of laws preventing doctors from revealing the gender of a fetus to the parents, but according to my teachers many doctors have managed to get around this legal barrier, for example, one might say “Oh well that looks OK too” or “Wow, you must be so proud”. Can you guess which reaction matches up with which gender?
The government in Beijing is slowly becoming aware of the fact that the implications of the problem, especially with regards to China’s social stability, are incredibly serious. The Communist Party has survived 90 years in this nation due largely to the fact that its leaders have consistently placed the promotion of stability ahead of all other concerns. Be it through rigid control or carefully conducted and precisely aimed welfare programs, the Chinese government has, to an astonishing degree, managed to ease any and all instances of social unrest. The government’s strong-armed promotion of rapid economic development has certainly aroused tension on a national scale, but with what appears to be an iron fist on one side and a helping hand on the other, Beijing has prevented these tensions from coming to a head.
That being said, this sex-ratio problem could prove to be the veritable straw to break this camel’s back. On a national level, Chinese men are finding it harder and harder to find a suitable partner. In most areas, it is only the richest and most accomplished men who are able to find a wife, leaving China’s poor bachelor crowd alone and struggling to find their place in society. This growing group of poor bachelors seems to be a powder keg waiting to explode, and no one really know what might set it off. Bear with me for a second while I delve into the modern Chinese bachelor’s psyche. It seems reasonable to believe that, unable to settle down and start raising a family, these people become more acutely aware of the injustices of Chinese society and the true flaws in the system. On a day by day basis, they are cognizant of their own lack of success, and become more and more pessimistic with regard to what the future might hold. And there is no silver lining to this cloud. This disgruntled youth population might begin to see their own society from the perspective of an outsider, rather than that of a proud Chinese citizen, beginning to see more clearly the types of exploitation, corruption, and inequity that I as an American recognize instantly.
This scenario has the makings of a legitimate uprising, and I think the government in Beijing is beginning to realize the true nature of this problem. As far as solving this problem goes, I don’t think that any form of legal or political control will suffice. In order to truly fix this sex-ratio imbalance and ease the aforementioned tensions, the government must look to the root of the problem – China’s traditional social beliefs. The Communist Party must make use of all of its power to fix the patriarchal societal structure, a notion that is deeply ingrained in the minds of the people and the culture as a whole. In order to correct these beliefs, the government must effectively write 重男轻女 out of China’s history. As I mentioned before, addressing this social issue will likely prove to be the Communist Party’s greatest challenge in the next decade, and while China will undoubtedly find itself in the unenviable position of facing concurrent, and equally serious, social, political and economical problems, I believe that the government must make the sex-ratio imbalance a priority. Social stability has served as the foundation for China’s ascent to its current position of geopolitical and economic power, and continuing on this path of development, globalization, and modernization will require a content and supportive national population.