BYU political scientist follows abrupt demographic changes in China, India
A new book by a Brigham Young University professor warns that by 2020, China's government will be forced to contend with a potentially unruly and unrooted population of 30 million surplus young adult males with no hope of marriage.
"Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population" is published by the MIT Press as part of Harvard's Belfer Center series on international security. Historical and sociological evidence gathered for the book predicts that excess males in China, India and Pakistan portend instability and more authoritarian states.
The root of the problem is a growing disparity between the number of boys and girls born in Asian societies, which place a special value on sons. Well-deserved attention has been paid to the tens of millions of missing women in Asia, but the book is the first to examine a consequence of the dearth of women – legions of young men with no hopes of marriage, and therefore, its author says, prone to violence and unrest.
"We stand at the threshold of a time in which these young, surplus males will increasingly figure into the deliberations of Asian governments," says Valerie Hudson, professor of political science at BYU. "Not only the nations of Asia, but the nations of the world will want to pay close attention to the ramifications of Asia's spiraling sex ratios and the policy choices they force upon Asian governments."
The work of Hudson and her co-author, Andrea den Boer, a lecturer at the University of Kent and former graduate student of Hudson, is already attracting attention.
"'Bare Branches' reveals a largely overlooked but important variable correlated with war and peace: high ratios of males to females," said Jessica Stern, lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "All those who hope to understand the causes of war – in academe as well as in government – will have to be aware of these findings."
A normal sex ratio at birth is between 105 and 107 males born for every 100 females. Gathering data from many sources, the authors assessed the current birth sex ratio in China as 120 males per 100 females.
Hudson and den Boer determined that such rates mean that in 2020 China will have 29 to 33 million surplus males between the ages of 15 and 34 and India will have 28 to 32 million.
According to the study, about 97 percent of all unmarried people age 28 to 49 in China are male, and 74 percent of unmarried males failed to graduate from high school. Most are migrants. India and other Asian countries demonstrate similar trends.
Some research says young single men are much more likely to be more violent than married men.
"Cross-culturally, an overwhelming percentage of violent crime is perpetrated by young, unmarried, low-status males," Hudson says.
Historical research shows societies laden with surplus males were volatile and struggled with increases in crime, unrest and violence. Society in medieval Portugal emphasized firstborn sons who could inherit family wealth. Later-born sons could not inherit and were thus hindered from marrying. Hudson's research discusses how Portuguese rulers used the consequent surplus males to fuel an expansionist strategy. The Nien Rebellion and martial religious brotherhoods are examples of instability from China's own past that have been attributed to the problem of surplus young males.
Hudson acknowledges that many factors influence violence within and between societies, with surplus males being just one. "Exaggerated gender inequality may provide an aggravating catalyst to the mix of insecurity factors leading to conflict."
High sex-ratio societies tend to develop authoritarian political systems that deal with intrasocietal violence caused by surplus males by reducing their numbers, Hudson found.
The government response over the course of Chinese history has been to battle them, expel them, or to co-opt them as soldiers, Hudson says. "In all cases, the goal of the government is to get rid of them, either by sending them away to distant regions or by giving their lives in a patriotic cause."
Viewing Asian security concerns through the prism of skewed sex ratios, Hudson's hopes are dim.
"The prognosis for the development for a full democracy in China is poor," the authors wrote. "The prognosis for the maintenance of a viable democracy in India is troubled. A move toward authoritarianism is much more likely."
Conflicts like Kashmir and Taiwan will endure, Hudson fears.
"It should never be forgotten by policymakers on either side of the Pacific that the worst-case scenario suggests that China may have 30 million surplus young adult males in 20 years, and that the government may feel the internal threat they are facing is greater than external threats," she said. "Nations like America, which don't face that problem, don't think about that. China's threat calculus is becoming increasingly different from ours."
Hudson insists that the problem of Asia's surplus males begs for attention from the foreign policy and international security communities.
"The scale on which sex ratios are being skewed in Asia is arguably unprecedented in human history," Hudson said. "Furthermore, it is worthwhile to remember that China and India alone compose 38 percent of the world's population. Peace and democracy may be as elusive as baby girls in this region where so many people live."