Birth Rate & Bachelor Blues

Wang Ling at chinadialogue describes concerns over the accuracy of China’s birth rate figures, expressed as its Total Fertility Rate: the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime. Underestimating this figure could leave Beijing ill-equipped to meet future demographic challenges.

According to a report by National Population Strategy Research, China’s TFR needs to stay around 1.8 for the next 30 years in order to maintain “coordinated development” of population, economy and society ….

Guo Zhigang is a professor at Peking University’s Centre for Sociological Research and Development Studies. He pointed out that, according to the population strategy in China’s 11th Five Year Plan, population should have reached 1.36 billion in 2010 – based on a TFR of 1.8 and annual average increase of 10 million people. But, in fact, census data indicates the population was 1.34 billion that year, meaning annual growth of only six million people, four million less each year than planned.

“That’s no minor slip, it’s a mistake. That gap between targets and census data proves that China’s TFR has been seriously overestimated,” Guo said. He added that current birth rates aren’t just low – they’re extremely low. TFR cannot be the 1.8 the authorities insist on, he said. It is plainly lower, below even 1.5.

At The New York Times, meanwhile, Alexandra Harney examines the scale and implications of another key demographic phenomenon in China, its extreme gender imbalance, which threatens to leave tens of millions of men perpetually single.

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 ….

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.

Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian recently explored the issue at GOOD, noting that many women also suffer from the effects of the gender imbalance, from the wealthy with nowhere to “marry upwards” to those trafficked from neighbouring countries to become wives in China.

One of eight children, Du [An Lan] grew up in an impoverished village in the rural county of Haixing, Vietnam. When a businessman promised her a lucrative job in China, she leapt at the opportunity and boarded a boat to her new home. But when she arrived, she discovered he had trafficked her as a bride. The businessman disposed of her Vietnamese-style clothing and dressed her in a new pant and shirt set with a traditional Chinese collar. As a ferry carried her from the mainland to Hainan, she looked at the expanse of the emerald-green sea and contemplated jumping ….

The shortage of girls could lead to a warped reversal of the imbalance. Shang-Jin Wei, a Columbia University economist, says that China’s ballooning savings rate, unparalleled in the world, could be a result of families’ pressure to accumulate cash to attract wives for their sons. “If you’re a dirt-poor peasant somewhere,” Edlund says, “maybe your optimal choice would be a daughter, who can get married.” This trend could create a new marriage economy, she says, encouraging lower-class parents to sex-select for daughters while the wealthy continue to have sons. Relegated to the underclass, women’s growing financial value could prime them for exploitation by their impoverished parents who could sell them to wealthier families for ever-increasing bride prices. South Korea has been credited with eliminating its widespread gender imbalance in the 1990s, but it is actually an example of this exact scenario—the rich choosing sons and the poor choosing daughters, Edlund says. “They have not been able to eliminate sex selection.”

See also recent articles by Tania Branigan on China’s gender imbalance and Leta Hong on its “Leftover Women”, via CDT.