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Introduced in 1980, China’s One-Child Policy (OCP) is the largest population control method ever implemented. It has prevented an estimated 400 million births during its 35-year existence, and ended in 2015 with the introduction of a two-child policy. However, while it seems the OCP may have achieved its immediate goal of population control, it has created a volatile side effect in creating an astronomically disproportionate male to female sex ratio. This is due to a historic preference for boys in China combined with technology which allowed parents to identify the sex of their unborn child, and thus abort if identified as a daughter. This technology developed concurrently with the institution of the OCP.
As a result of these forces converging, China has about 704 million men compared to only 670 million women. The birth rate sex ratio is currently at 114 boys to 100 girls, compared to a 103 to 107 world average. Among Chinese people born in the 1980s there are 136 bachelors to every 100 single women, and in the next 30 years, the Chinese predict that of the people hitting marriageable age, there will be a 30 million surplus population of males.
The impacts of this gross difference are profound. China’s government will face many social issues associated with surplus young men, as single young men who are unable to find wives often find themselves disillusioned with life and society, making them more prone to violence and extremism. Due to China’s large population of surplus males, there is no doubt that the negative effects will be more pervasive throughout society. In fact, crime rates in China have increased dramatically in the past decade, widely attributed to this lack of social opportunities. Given how important security and social stability are to the Chinese government, there is little doubt that dealing with the surplus males in the coming decades will be a huge priority for them.
China’s recent foreign policy has reflected a certain degree of attention toward this issue. These surplus males, who often have no family prospects and face the hardships of a slowing economy, turn to patriotism and nationalism. President Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy reflects this attitude. He has increased China’s military spending during his reign, and China already has the largest number of active duty military members in the world. As China devotes more resources to its military, Xi has also been more aggressive on the global stage. This includes ambitious economic projects such as the New Silk Road and increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea conflict, to wide public support.
In a way, it seems that Xi must accede to the demands of his people, who have become increasingly wary of China’s stance on the world stage, and this is directly related to its high sex ratio and high number of single young men. There is a historical precedent for this. In 2003, German sociologist Gunner Heinsohn put forth the theory of “youth bulge,” which argued that countries with a high percentage of young people, especially young men, and stagnant economic growth were much more likely to have civil unrest and war. The conflicts in his study that were affected by the youth bulge included both World Wars, communist uprisings in Latin America in the late 1970s, and current conflicts in the Middle East.
If Heinsohn is correct, then modern China is having by far the largest youth bulge in the history of the world, and the impacts of it could be devastating. The US must be very careful in dealing with China not just because President Xi is more aggressive than his predecessor, but because Xi is sitting on the increasingly ticking time bomb that is the youth bulge. Heinsohn’s final conclusion was that in the end, the only way to conclusively deal with youth bulge is to let it run its course. In a sense, this is already happening in parts of the Middle East, where civil wars and extremism are tearing apart communities and countries. However, if China, the most populous country in the world, which also holds a huge stake in the world economy, succumbs to its youth bulge, the results could be catastrophic for the world.
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