Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Asia's surplus male population

Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. Den Boer, The Washington Post

If tens of millions of your society's young men were unable to find wives, would you be concerned? This is the troubling scenario that China and India now face.

The technology to identify the sex of a fetus became widespread in Asia in the mid-1980s, and more and more parents each year have used it to weed out less-valued daughters before they are born. Even though identification of the sex of a fetus, as well as sex-selective abortion, is illegal throughout Asia, the balance of boys and girls in the younger generations continues to worsen in many of these countries.

For example, in China the sex ratio for children up through age 4 is over 120:100 (120 boys for every 100 girls), according to the 2000 census. By comparison, a normal sex ratio for this age group is 105 or less. In India the sex ratio for children up through age six has increased over the past decade from 105.8 to 107.9, though this masks the fact that certain Indian states have much worse ratios -- 126 in Punjab, for example.

In societies where the status of women is so low that they are routinely culled from the population, even before birth, the prospects for peace and democracy are seriously diminished.

The old saying goes, "When you pick up one end of a stick, you also pick up the other." When a society prefers sons to daughters to the extent found in parts of contemporary Asia, it will not only have fewer daughters but also create a subclass of young men likely to have difficulty finding wives and beginning their own families. Because son preference has been a significant phenomenon in Asia for centuries, the Chinese actually have a term for such young men: Guang gun-er or "bare branches" -- branches of the family tree that will never bear fruit. The girls who should have grown up to be their wives were disposed of instead.

We've already seen in China the resurrection of evils such as the kidnapping and selling of women to provide brides for those who can pay the fee. Scarcity of women leads to a situation in which men with advantages -- money, skills, education -- will marry, but men without such advantages -- poor, unskilled, illiterate -- will not. A permanent subclass of bare branches from the lowest socioeconomic classes is created. In China and India, for example, by the year 2020 bare branches will make up 12 to 15 percent of the young adult male population.

Should the leaders of these nations be worried? The answer is yes. Throughout history, bare branches in East and South Asia have played a role in aggravating societal instability, violent crime and gang formation.

Though the existence of sizable numbers of bare branches is not a necessary condition for instability -- the sex ratios of Rwanda in 1994 were normal, for example -- it plays a significant role in the amplification of levels of instability and threat.

Consider the fact that in the mid-1800s, a predominantly bare- branch rebel group in the north of China called the Nien, in combination with rebel groups farther south, openly attacked imperial troops and forts, taking control of territory inhabited by six million Chinese citizens before it was quashed by the government years later.

More recently, Indian scholars have noted a very strong relationship between sex ratios and violent crime rates in Indian states, which persists even after controlling for a variety of other possible variables. And worldwide, more violent crime is committed by unmarried young adult men than by married young adult men.

According to sociologists, young adult men with no stake in society -- of the lowest socioeconomic classes and with little chance of forming families of their own -- are much more prone to attempt to improve their situation through violent and criminal behavior in a strategy of coalitional aggression with other bare branches.

Historically, governments facing a growing population of bare branches find themselves in a dilemma. They must decrease the threat to society posed by these young men but at the same time may find the cost of doing so is heavy. Increased authoritarianism in an effort to crack down on crime, gangs, smuggling and so forth can be one result.

At some point, governments consider how they can export their problem, either by encouraging emigration of young adult men or harnessing their energies in martial adventures abroad. There are very few good options for governments that find that their greatest threat emanates not from an external source but from an internal one.

Conservative estimates of the number of young adult bare branches in China in 2020 will be about 30 million, in India about 28 million. Pakistan will also have a sizable number of bare branches, as will Taiwan. When policymakers ponder the future of conflicts such as Kashmir and Taiwan, the sex ratios of the nations involved should not be forgotten.

Abnormal sex ratios may very well alter security calculations concerning threat and deterrence. The first generation of bare branches since the advent of sex identification technology is turning 19 this year, and with every successive year not only the number but the percentage of young adult men without wives will increase. We stand at the threshold of a time in which their presence will become a factor in policymaking.

Given that almost 40 percent of the world's population is in China and India, the likelihood of diminishing prospects for democracy, stability and peace because of the extremely low status of women in those societies will affect not only Asia but the world.

Valerie M. Hudson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, and Andrea M. Den Boer, a lecturer in international politics at the University of Kent in Britain, are the authors of Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population.