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Asia-Pacific

China's Gender Imbalance

Translation: "Marry me!"

In the 1950s and 1960s China's leader Mao Zedong instructed the nation to have as many children as possible in order to bury the United States in a human wave. His instructions sent the birth rate soaring to 5.8 children per couple, a level unsustainable for China's natural resources of food, water and energy. By 1962 a massive famine had caused some 30 million deaths.

In 1979, three years after Mao's death, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, introduced China's one-child policy to limit the nation's population growth. The policy required couples from China's ethnic Han majority to have only one child (the law has largely exempted ethnic minorities). It has remained virtually the same ever since.

Originally designated a temporary measure, China's National Population and Family Planning Commission has announced that it will continue its one-child policy through 2015.

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Heavy fines, pressures to abort a pregnancy, and even forced hysterectomies often accompany subsequent pregnancies. Fines can be up to six times a family's annual income.

The one-child policy has been estimated to have reduced population growth in the country of 1.3 billion by as much as 300 million people over its first 20 years alone. And in the three decades that China's one-child policy has been in place, the Chinese government claims it has prevented 400 million births and boosted prosperity.

The policy has been relaxed or varied depending upon the vigilance of local population control workers. Despite government exemptions in rural areas, 63 percent of Chinese couples are strictly limited to one child, and the long-term consequences of gender imbalance are increasingly apparent.

The imbalance has accelerated steadily since ultrasound became widely available in the 1980s, and selective abortion of girls, while illegal in China, has became commonplace.

The result of such draconian family planning has resulted in demographic impacts beyond population-size control. China now has 32 million more males than females under the age of 20. (To put it into perspective, 32 million is roughly the population of Uganda.)

The gender imbalance is now manifested most clearly among those of marrying age, and the scarcity of women will have a more profound impact on population growth than any government fine. There is even an increasingly high risk group of single Chinese men referred to as "bare branches" because they will never father children and establish family trees of their own.

The Chinese Academy of Social Science estimates that by 2020, 24 million Chinese men will be unable to find a wife in their own country—a massive lonely hearts club with ominous social implications. With no choice but to look abroad for a wife, it seems that Chinese men, at least many of those who like to sound off on blogs and in Internet chat rooms, are employing matchmakers to find them wives from countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore.

The cultural pressure to marry has led to an explosion of matchmaking businesses, and it should come as no surprise that dating-service companies are one of China's growth industries.

For Chinese men who have taken the plunge into a foreign marriage, it seems the verdict is in: Vietnamese women are the best. "Young," "pretty" and "obedient," the Vietnamese woman is a dream wife, causing a marked increase in Chinese singletons traveling to Vietnam in search of the perfect wife.

Testimonies abound that Vietnamese women are traditional, low-maintenance, quietly charming, gentle and loyal. Put all this information together, and the legend of the "perfect Vietnamese bride" has been the hot topic on almost every major Chinese website and online forum. And the legend of the perfect Vietnamese wife has prompted thousands of illegal Vietnamese women to flood into China. The darker side of the legend is the actual experience of the Vietnamese women, which can range from marital bliss to the complete opposite, including being victims of trafficking scams, matchmaking shams, mistreatment and violence.

The one-child policy has created many more problems than just single Chinese men. The pressure to have a son has created a lucrative male child trade, often targeting the sons of migrant workers. Close to 70,000 children are snatched and sold every year to childless couples who turn to criminal gangs to supply the treasured male heir, while the girls are trafficked to become prostitutes or brides in rural areas.

The kidnapping of young girls is an all-too-common phenomenon. Women from surrounding countries are increasingly kidnapped and brought to China as a black-market solution to ensure that men have the women they need.

The one-child policy has also created the world's fastest aging population. The over-60 population will more than quadruple to 430 million by 2040, while the number of people of working age will be significantly reduced. China's population is aging so rapidly that care for the elderly will soon impose a crushing burden on its economy. And many analysts fear that with too few children to care for them, China's elderly people will suffer neglect.

Other possible consequences of the large numbers of single Chinese men include damage to the well-being of men who fail to marry; the prevalence of prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases; and social instability. What the future will hold is unsure, but what is certain is that China's one-child policy will have consequential repercussions on Chinese society and politics for decades to come.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of Worldpress.org, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

 
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