Too many boys…Esther Duflo18 August 2008China‟s one-child policy led to an explosion of the boy-girl ratio in the „80s and „90s. As this“only child” generation reaches adulthood, problems – including rising crime rates – arestarting to appear.China is gradually getting rid of the vestiges of its communist past. But the demographic policyof the 1980s and 1990s planted a time bomb, and its effects are just starting to be felt.Its best-known aspect is the one-child policy, first put in place in 1978 and still in practice,though in a more relaxed form. Today, a couple made up of two only-children are allowed tohave two children. In rural regions, a couple whose first child is a girl is normally authorised tohave a second. But in the „80s and „90s, the one-child policy was strictly applied, albeit notuniformly across regions. Parents were penalised for births “outside quota”. They were fined andwere financially responsible for the education and health-care of “extra” children.*Envisioned by Deng Xiaoping, this aggressive fertility control strategy marked a rupture withthe Mao period, which had launched the slogan “more people, more power”. Xiaopingconsidered fertility control essential to getting a handle on the economy, the foundation ofChina’s success.The one-child policy was a great success in terms of controlling fertility. But in a countrywhere there was already a strong cultural preference for boys, it resulted in a seriousimbalance between the number of girls and boys; the widespread use of techniques fordetermining a foetus’s sex opened the door to sex-selective abortion.*The preference for boys, sex-selective abortion, and excessive mortality of young girls isn‟t anexclusively Chinese phenomenon and isn‟t therefore entirely due to the one-child policy. Thisphenomenon is seen in India, Taiwan, Pakistan, and even in the United States in communitiesmade up of immigrants from these countries1. But the one-child policy accentuated thisimbalance, by “forcing” parents who wanted at least one boy to eliminate girls from the firstchildren born to them. For example, in Taiwan, where fertility wasn‟t controlled, theliberalization of abortion in 1986 led to significant sex-selection of children, but only startingwith a couple‟s third child2. In the Peoples Republic, governors in each province had somelatitude in implementing the policy, and in certain regions, since the „80s, parents have beenallowed to have a second child if their first-born was a girl. In these areas, the boy-girl ratio ismore or less normal for first-births and catastrophic for second births.3All of these factors combined, including the one-child policy, led to an explosion of the boy-girlratio in the „80s and „90s: there were about 102 boys for 100 girls among children born in 1978,and more than 112 boys for 100 girls among those born in 1998. Today, there are 37 millionmore men than women, and there are as much as 120 boys born for 100 girls.*This “only child” generation is now reaching adulthood. A child born in 1980 is now 28years old, and China is beginning to realize the consequences of this demographic imbalance.Among 16-25 year olds today, there are nearly 110 boys for every 100 girls. Boys are havingtrouble getting married. And young men, particularly single ones, have more behavioralproblems and commit more crimes than young women. It has been argued that the “frontiertown” mentality of the United States is responsible for its high propensity to violence. Since1998, the number of crimes has risen 13% per year on average. Seventy percent of criminals
arrested are between 16 and 25 years old, and 90% are male.*To what extent is the rise in the number of young men responsible for the increase in crime? Arecent study by Chinese and American researchers: “Sex ratio and crime: Evidence from China‟sone-Child Policy” (by Edlund, Li, Yi, and Zhang) answers this question by comparing theincrease in the number of crimes between 1998 and 2004 in regions where the one-child policywas strictly enforced with the same increase in regions where parents were allowed a secondchild if the first were a girl (where the boy-girl ratio is much closer to normal). They concludethat the one-child policy explains one-seventh of the increase in crime.Besides the mechanical effect of the increase in the proportion of boys (and therefore potentialcriminals) in the population, the difficulty that young men have getting married is probably onesource of this phenomenon.A long-term study of Vietnam veterans in 1998, cited in a recent New Republic article, providessome clue as to why. The subjects testosterone levels, which are linked to aggression andviolence, dropped when they married and increased when they divorced. Men who remain singlemaintain high levels of testosterone, which may make them particularly aggressive.4Another factor is that of being raised as an only child. One study shows that girls born in regionswhere a second child was permitted have stayed in school longer than those in regions wherethey were the only child. It seems that far from creating competition, siblings benefit eachother.5The only-child generation is perhaps a generation of lonely children.Whatever the case may be, and even though the one-child policy is on the decline, it willcontinue to haunt China for decades to come.Footnotes1See Jason Abrevaya “Are There Missing Girls in the United States? Evidence from Birth Data”,forthcoming in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics and Almond, Doug andLena Edlund “Son-biased sex ratios in the 2000 United States Census.” Proceedings of theNational Academy of Sciences, 105: 5681-56822See Lin, Ming-Jen, Liu, Jin-Tan and Qian, Nancy (2008) ”More women missing, fewer girlsdying: The impact of abortion on sex ratios at birth and excess female mortality in Taiwan”CEPR Discussion Paper 66673See Qian, Nancy “Quantity-Quality: The Positive Effect of Family Size on School Enrollmentin China” Brown University mimeograph4“No Country for Young Men”, by Mara Hvistendahl, New Republic, July 9, 20085Qian, Nancy “Quantity-Quality: The Positive Effect of Family Size on School Enrollment inChina” Brown University mimeographThis article may be reproduced with appropriate attribution. See Copyright (below).