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Among the many horrors of war are the social imbalances that follow. These imbalances threaten the stability of society. Social engineering plays a part as well in this global tragedy of errors.

December 19, 2011, 9:21 AM
The Plight of China’s Favored Sons
ZHUHAI, China — In the rural Chinese town where Li Yiming grew up, the gossip mill starts to turn if a man is still single at 25. As he nears this milestone, the 23-year-old Li, an assembly-line worker in the coastal city of Zhuhai, is despondent. He knows he’ll never earn enough at any factory to win the approval of his girlfriend’s parents.

Associated Press
Finding a spouse isn’t easy anywhere. But Li (whose name has been changed) is part of a cohort of millions of Chinese men, the favored sons, whose chances of ever getting married are particularly slim. After a rapid decline in fertility rates and decades of sex-selective abortions, there are now many more potential grooms than brides in China. This “marriage squeeze,” as demographers call the imbalance, is not a historical first — Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea have all had trouble marrying off their men — but in China it may be unprecedented in scale.

According to Dudley Poston, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, and his colleagues, 40 million Chinese men alive today will likely be left without a wife. That’s more people than the population of California.

Uneducated men from the countryside like Li have the worst prospects because many marriages in rural China are local. Traditional family ties often mean that the first choice for a spouse is someone from the same town. But sex ratios at birth (S.R.B.) — the ratio of boys born to girls — are generally much higher in the countryside than in the cities. And so the market dynamics of marriage for men in rural areas are much worse than in the cities.

Demographers consider a natural S.R.B. to be between 104 and 107 boys born for every 100 girls. Nationally, China’s sex ratio at birth is 120 boys per 100 girls; in rural areas, where couples often have more than one child, the S.R.B. for second children rises to 145 (and in nine provinces, it’s a staggering 160, according to Poston). By comparison, the U.S. sex ratio at birth is 105 boys per 100 girls. The main reason for this gap is the use of ultrasound scanners to determine the gender of fetuses, followed by the abortion of many female ones.

The other reason Li will have a hard time finding a wife is the “no money, no honey” dynamic. Chinese brides and their parents prefer men with the highest possible income, in particular those who own property. A recent study by the China Youth Daily found that 35 percent of women of marrying age would not consider tying the knot with a man who didn’t own property or who couldn’t afford to buy some. Li earns about $3,400 a year and his girlfriend’s parents expect him to buy an apartment that costs about $47,000.

What will happen if so many Chinese men never get married? Wei Shang-jin, of Columbia University, and Zhang Xiaobo, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, predict that China’s marriage squeeze could stimulate economic growth by prodding men to work harder in order to woo a bride. But most projections are not so sanguine.

Some observers predict that disgruntled bachelors like Li will go on strike to ask for more money or may resort to crime. Texas A&M’s Poston argues that cases of H.I.V. could rise as men congregate in “bachelor ghettos” in big cities. Others still warn that China may be more likely to go to war to keep its single men out of trouble at home.

At a minimum, the marriage squeeze will widen various disparities in Chinese society today: between the rich and the poor, the cities and the countryside, those with property and those without. None of these is a good scenario for a Chinese government whose primary objective is stability.

Alexandra Harney is the author of “The China Price” and an associate fellow at the Asia Society.

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