- A society with a masculinized young adult population, such as China’s, is likely to respond to significant economic hardship with significant domestic instability and crime. Tweet This
- Right at the historical moment when China should be reaching out to grasp the brass ring, its working age (and military age) population is shrinking. Tweet This
- China’s contempt for its daughters may lead to a less stable, less prosperous China, and perhaps even a frustration of its international strategic aspirations. Tweet This
In her book, Just One Child, anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh recounts that the official in charge of what would become China’s one-child policy was an actual rocket scientist. In this case, when the phrase “it’s not rocket science!” comes to mind, it has a different meaning than the usual idiom. Greenhalgh shows that the original developers knew the one-child would lead to the culling of girl infants from the population, but that they actually saw this as a feature, not a bug. Selective culling of females meant fewer future mothers, meaning the ratcheting down of birth rates would be baked into future trends.
But there’s a strange sort of karma that attends such state-sponsored misogyny. As shown in my most recent co-authored book, The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide, nation-state outcomes of stability, security, and resilience are tightly associated with the situation of women. What you do to your women, you do to your nation-state. And if you choose to curse your women, as China did with the one-child policy and its predictable excesses against women, karma waits expectantly in the wings.
The human cost of the one-child policy may never be fully tallied, though its pathos is exquisitely captured in works such as the film “One Child Nation.” The lives of tens of millions of daughters who should have been born, or should have been allowed to live once born, were snuffed out. It was gynocide. There were other costs, too, with these largely borne by men and their families: an over ten-fold rise in brideprice, inflationary real estate prices, despair, and loneliness, particularly among rural men and their elderly parents. And then there are the victims-once-removed, such as the countless women and girls kidnapped or trafficked into China from all surrounding countries, and now from Belt and Road countries as well. China has, in a sense, undertaken the export of its marriage market problems to its neighbors.
None of these things are in any way the justice of karma; they are instead the heart-breaking “collateral” damage of misguided state policy. What would be karmic is if the Chinese state’s own goals were frustrated as a result of the inhumane policy it heedlessly chose for its people. I believe there are signs that this is now coming to pass.
China’s contempt for its daughters may lead to a less stable, less prosperous China, and perhaps even a frustration of its international strategic aspirations.
China aspires to become a regional hegemon, if not a world hegemon. Unfortunately, no nation has ever achieved that status with a sub-replacement birth rate and declining population. Right at the historical moment when China should be reaching out to grasp the brass ring, its working age (and military age) population is shrinking. China has already raised the retirement age in an effort to mitigate this decrease. Given current birth rates, that working age cohort will continue to shrink for the next quarter century at minimum, at the rate of about 0.5% per year. The median age of a Chinese citizen is now almost 40. Yi and Wilcox estimate the total fertility rate of China is now a paltry 1.0, and the Financial Times claims the Chinese population has decreased for the first time since the disastrous Great Leap Forward. As someone who has studied Chinese demography for decades, the waiving of fines for any birth policy violation, newly announced this year, will not be sufficient to raise the fertility rate to the level desired by the state. I would not be surprised in the least if, within the near future, China imposed a birth quota of two or three children per couple.
It is important to note that this population decline is accompanied by a lopsided sex ratio of far more males than females. As the Asia Times notes, “China’s gender asymmetry is . . . pronounced among newborns, hitting 111 in 2020 when overall new birth registrations plunged to a decade low of just over 10 million.” For comparison purposes, the normal birth sex ratio is about 106 baby boys born for every 100 baby girls. (Note that the birth sex ratio of 2020 is far better than that of 2010, where the best estimates were that the birth sex ratio stood at 122 baby boys born for every 100 baby girls. The loosening of the one-child policy in 2015 has had a tangible positive impact there.) Scholars at Renmin University project that 18% of China’s young men born since 2015 will not be able to marry; the percentage is higher for those born before 2015.
It’s almost certain that because of population decline, China is a nation that will stagnate economically. Declining working-age populations are a drag on economic growth; Yi and Wilcox note that China’s growth dropped from 9.6% in 2011 to 6% in pre-COVID 2019. Consumption patterns between workers and the elderly are quite different, also, with the elderly consuming much less than workers (especially in the area of durable goods), except in the area of health care. Aging societies also have significantly lower savings rates, as the elderly must divest themselves of their assets to maintain their standard of living in a context of rising health care costs. As a result, capital investment both at home and abroad may be compromised. Businesses may experience a lower return on investment in their homeland, but increasing investment abroad may lead to a net capital outflow, which may result in the weakening of the currencies of aging societies. The lack of savings may cause interest rates to rise, as well.
What you do to your women, you do to your nation-state. And if you choose to curse your women, as China did with the one-child policy and its predictable excesses against women, karma waits expectantly in the wings.
Of course, economic slowdowns are almost as a rule accompanied by significant domestic unrest. A society with a masculinized young adult population, such as China’s, is likely to respond to significant economic hardship with significant domestic instability and crime. The Chinese regime will be hard-pressed to maintain its usual control over society as a result and will likely become more authoritarian with greater emphasis on surveillance as time goes on to meet this internal security challenge. The question for the government will be, how can it attract the allegiance of its masculinized population, and channel them towards less internally destructive deeds? One temptation may be to play the card of nationalism.
It has often been noted by psychologists that youth take their understanding of their nation and its place in the world from the experiences of their forebears, typically the generation of their grandparents. What types of vivid experiences will the grandparents of today’s young adults in China relay? This older generation is, generally speaking, highly nationalistic, anti-Japanese, has strong feelings about the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland, and may be more inclined to respect authoritarian measures to ensure social stability.
It may be that the Chinese government would be able to play upon these themes to maintain power in the context of an aging, more masculine society experiencing a profound economic slowdown. Faced with worsening instability at home, and an unsolvable economic decline, China’s government may well be tempted to use foreign policy to “ride the tiger” of domestic instability. Domestic instability at this time may be seen by the government as much more pressing than the forces of international deterrence. The government may well search for contests of national pride involving martial prowess, which will be highly attractive to its masculinized population that might otherwise cause it severe internal problems.
The government may thus see a way to kill two birds with one stone, seizing a greater share of international power through successful international use of force, while also appeasing forces of discontent at home. Masculine societies are very susceptible to political campaigns stressing national pride vis a vis a competing nation. But masculine societies are a double-edged sword in this, also, for if the government is perceived as weak or as unsuccessful in these contests of national pride, it will be very vulnerable to internal dissension that would bring a “stronger” government to power. Perhaps this helps explain the tough, bordering on bellicose, rhetoric we have seen recently from the “wolf warrior” diplomats of the Chinese state.
In sum, then, China’s contempt for its daughters may lead to a less stable, less prosperous China, and perhaps even a frustration of its international strategic aspirations. Karma, indeed.
Valerie M. Hudson is Professor and George H.W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where she directs the Program on Women, Peace, and Security.
*Photo credit:Ling Tang on Unsplash