A group of Chinese women during China Fashion Week in Beijing on March 28, 2021. Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao

More boys than girls are being born in China and more single males in their prime marriageable age are resigned to a celibate life after failing in the intense hunt for a bride.

Some statisticians are referring to the imbalance as a “women deficit” in the world’s most populous nation. 

China’s dearth of baby girls has been somewhat concealed by the overall demographic picture of steep declines in newborns over the decades. But preliminary data from the country’s ongoing population census have again thrown the stark gender imbalance – in almost all age brackets from toddlers to people in their optimal childbearing age – into sharper relief. 

The National Statistics Bureau (NSB), while still crunching data collected in the nationwide headcount, noted in its revised 2019 Yearbook that China’s sex ratio stood at 104.45 males versus 100 females that year.

While that mismatch does not appear to be huge, in the context of the sheer size of China’s 1.3 billion-plus population it indicated a “guy glut” of 30 million more males than females that year. 

The internationally recognized normal gender ratio must be below 103 for sustainable population production, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In most countries with normal demographic patterns, males also outnumber females, but not by much given males’ generally higher mortality rates and shorter life expectancy.  

Yet China’s gender asymmetry is even more pronounced among newborns, hitting 111 in 2020 when overall new birth registrations plunged to a decade low of just over 10 million, despite the imposition of sweeping shelter-in-home orders to stop Covid-19 infection chains in the first and second quarters. 

The “gender gulf” resulting in even fewer births has been a constant worry for policy planners.

Gender ratio of registered newborns in China from 2004 to 2015. Source: National Statistics Bureau

China Remin University’s Center for Population and Development found that on average 18 of every 100 boys born in China since 2015 would not be able to find a wife when they reach adulthood. The findings were based on a mathematical projection study examining the NSB gender ratio data in children and adolescents. 

Professor Li Shuzhuo, the director of Xi’an Jiaotong University’s Demography Institute, also found in a recent study that to achieve an overall “gender equilibrium” of the UN-recommended ratio of 103 in China, an additional 28 million females would have to have been born between 1980 and 2015.

Li argued that the “women deficit” would mean negative population growth and a host of issues like social disharmony, more sex crimes as well as tough matrimonial competition for “redundant males” to find a female mate. 

Li’s prescription, on top of more stringent enforcement of women’s rights protection laws, is for Beijing to drop existing birth control rules altogether.

Beijing’s draconian one-child policy implemented between 1978 and 2015 is largely to blame for the demographic imbalance.  

Medical staff massaging babies at an infant care centre in Yongquan, in Chongqing municipality, in southwest China. Photo:AFP

“Patrilineal traditions are still prevalent in rural China, in numerous backwater towns and villages where the need to have male offsprings to pass a family name and hence wealth down to the next generation still trumps other values,” said Eric Mer, an associate professor with the Peking University’s School of Governance. 

“If a couple can only have one kid, chances are that they will try to have a son, with the help of prenatal gender detection and when abortion was easy and commonplace.” 

As for the economic impact, Mer said the consequence of the imbalance may manifest itself in tepid consumption growth as female consumers were generally more willing to spend. He cited a study by the PKU’s School of Economics that found Chinese cities with more female residents like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou all saw more sustainable retail and merchandise volume growth than other urban centers between 2015 and 2018. 

He said the first step to redress the imbalance was for Beijing to stop dictating how many children a couple may have to allow them autonomy in childbearing and thus give incentive to have bigger families. 

There have been sensationalistic proposals like reviving the system of fraternal polyandry for a number of bachelors to share one wife. But there have also been serious discussions among policymakers in provinces grappling with the starkest sex imbalance to criminalize “gender selection” by parents as well as unapproved termination of pregnancies not related to a medical emergency. 

Women’s rights groups in China’s southern Guangdong province, where 2010’s population census revealed an alarmingly high sex ratio of 125, have been pushing officials there to consider handing out cash to parents of female babies and waive part of their tuition when these girls reach schooling age. 

Read more: Covid baby boom turns to bust in China