With 32.7 Million "Excess Males," What Will Become of China?

For every 100 girls born in China during 2005, 120 boys were born. A new demographic study shows that the biggest population control experiment in history has turned China's youth into the "male generation."

A new demographic study conducted by Chinese researchers reveals that China has 32.7 million more males than females under the age of 20. Of course, some regions have higher male to female ratios than others, partly due to differences in how China's "one child" policy is enforced. In many regions, couples who give birth to a girl are allowed to have a second child, and tend to abort fetuses until they have a male. In urban areas like Shanghai with more education and greater social parity between the sexes, people are allowed only one child no matter what the sex. While there are still more boys born, the ratio is less extreme. You can see a breakdown of China's demographics by region below.

With 32.7 Million "Excess Males," What Will Become of China?

The study included over 4 million participants from across China, and was based on data gathered during the 2005 year. The Chinese government has expressed concern over the looming population imbalance among young adults, which is going to become more extreme over the next ten years or so. Most experts agree that the imbalance has largely been caused by access to ultrasound tests that can determine the sex of a baby before birth. (It's worth noting that China's current population control policies were implemented before the availability of these tests.) Though sex-based abortion is illegal in China, it is widely practiced.

So the male generation coming of age now in China is mainly the result of population control policies that didn't take into account changes in technology.

All kinds of solutions have been proposed, though of course it's too late to stop the ball rolling on demographic changes that have already happened to people who are teens and toddlers right now. When the male generation comes of age, there will not be enough fertile women to replace the current population and it will decline.

Some commentators have suggested that China gradually relax its population control policies, allowing people to create families of any size they like within the next ten years. Others believe that there needs to be a tweak in the policies of regions that allow a second child only if the first is female - these are the regions that have the highest male-to-female sex ratios. And there have already been efforts made to educate citizens about the value of girls via the fairly successful "Care for Girls" campaign that has halted the runaway ratios in targeted regions.

The pressing question now, however, is what will happen to this male generation? Ian McDonald asks this same question about India in his short story "An Eligible Boy," published in his new anthology Cyberabad Days. He imagines a world where the lack of women has broken down the caste system: Women are so valuable that men compete for women of every caste. They spend all their cash on dressing up, paying exorbitant amounts to matchmaking services, and trying vainly to interest the few women who remain single. The disappointed bachelors turn to videogames, soaps, and marriage-like relationships with other men.

Margaret Atwood asks this same question in her novel The Handmaid's Tale, which imagines a post-apocalyptic future where only a few women are fertile. Those who are fertile are rounded up and turned into breeding slaves for wealthy men. Essentially, every powerful male gets to have a harem that includes his (infertile) wife and a "handmaid," his breeding woman.

While both of these scenarios are extreme, the question of what will happen to both sexes in the male generation is pressing. Will men have to take on the traditionally female role of hoping to be noticed by the opposite sex, wishing for that lucky moment when women choose them? Or will men treat women like valuable but powerless objects, best when they are kept locked up and constantly pregnant? Or perhaps there will be a social transformation where women get to have male harems so that those extra 32.7 million men all get to have wives. No matter what happens, the next two decades in China are likely to foment a strange new kind of sexual revolution.

Read the full report on China's sex demographics here (it's a PDF). Or read a summary in the New York Times.