China's looming man-surplus

The controversial practice of infant sex selection in parts of Asia will leave many countries saddled with a huge glut of men. Here's why that's a potentially dangerous problem

A busy street corner in Hong Kong: Thanks to a culturally reinforced preference for male offspring, China's under-20 population includes 32 million more males than females.
(Image credit: Corbis)

It's no secret that, in parts of China, Korea, India, and other Asian countries, many parents prefer sons over daughters and are so determined to get a boy that they rely on sex selection, or the aborting of female fetuses. Now, a new Canadian study published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association forecasts the dire consequences that the resulting glut of males will have for these countries — especially China, where the one-child policy raises the stakes even higher for parents. How will this generation of "lost boys" affect China?

Is sex selection even legal?

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What evidence is there of selective abortion?

Starting in the mid-1980s, when ultrasound technology allowed parents to see the sex of their unborn offspring early on, the male-to-female birth ratio started rising, first in South Korea. The normal rate is 105 boys born for every 100 girls, but by 1992 Korea had 125 boys born for every 100 girls. In 2005, China's ratio was 121 boys for every 100 girls.

How big is China's surplus-male problem?

In 2005, China's total population included 1.1 million more males than females. In the under-20 demographic, however, the disparity was huge — with 32 million more males than females. That translates into a whole lot of single men in the future. And as much as China likes boys, it isn't so wild about "guang gun" (bare branches), or men who aren't able to get married and produce offspring.

What might happen to these extra men?

Marriage in China is "regarded as virtually universal," and "social status and acceptance depend, in large part, on being married and creating a new family," notes the Canadian study. So having a large cohort of men unable to take this "stake in the existing social order" is a recipe for trouble. It's possible that these single, poorly educated men "will become bound together in an outcast culture, turning to antisocial behavior and organized crime."

Is there any good news in this study?

Yes: Sex selection is becoming less common. China is easing its one-child policy in some areas, and running a public awareness campaign about the problem of selective abortion. India is actively discouraging sex selection, too, and South Korea is cracking down on gender-motivated abortions.

Sources: AFP, Los Angeles Times, CNN, CBC News

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