Could China´s one-child-policy trigger a new war?


Chinese bachelors

Growing up in a rather traditional farming family in Germany, I always had the slight feeling. that my older brother was of more value to the family “business” than me. Traditionally, the male child gets the farm and the female children marry out to live on their husband´s farm. He was nudged into the direction to overtake the farm since he was a young boy I – the girl  – was never involved in their plans and therefore – that is the positive view on it – had the freedom to choose whatever I wanted to do with my future.

The status of women in developing countries is by far worse. Especially in the last years we had a closer look on what is happening to women in different countries and the situation is explained with traditions that put women into a bad position in their society and make them the target of violence and injustices.

My fellow student Marvin Golser wrote about the recent changes in China´s policies which also included the one-child-policy which is finally being altered. I wanted to have a look on how and in which way the one-child-policy did not only have an effect on the number of people in the country, but especially what effects this had on the culture and society as a whole. If a family is only granted one child, how does this affect family life and the rearing of the child? While researching the topic I stumbled upon a very interesting research paper in which the author explains that there is a link between a surplus of male citizens and rising crime rates and unrest. 1

Wow, that sounded interesting as it seemed to have relevance with all the ongoing conflicts and I kept reading. Having already gained a background on the one-child-policy, I knew that it was introduced to be a benefit for the whole population. It should be a temporary measure for about 30 years until the population boom had ended. Several famines and other issues had led to the conclusion that a further population explosion would lead to more catastrophes. The implementation was a 180°-turn to the former approach where families were encouraged to have lots of children for the wellbeing of the state. 2 3

Higher sex ratios are linked with increases in trafficking, rape, prostitution, and overall crime. China’s crime rate has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. [4.]



The social experiment, that lasted more than three decades has provoked many reactions: sceptical head-shaking, indignation, disbelief, and questioning of human rights issues.  Reports about the impact it has on family planning issues, the preference of male children and the consequences it has on female foetuses were mainly negative and prompted outcries throughout the world.

Astonishingly, I did not only dig up negative reports. In some reports it is even stated that the policy had a positive impact on the status of girls and the establishment of a middle class. Thus the planners of the policy had done a good job and held their promises. But on what costs? 4 I think the state´s wellbeing outweighed basic human rights like the right to self-determination which I find questionable.

The one-child policy brings many benefits for girls “but they have to be born first. 5

But yet,  girls are mainly seen of being of less value. Several traditions make it hard and expensive to rear a girl without jeopardizing the family´s future. Many, especially rural inhabitants in China, have the same concern towards their female children as my parents had; it´s the concern that one day she will marry and leave to live with her husband. Then there is no one to care for them when they are old. 6

The situation is especially worse if you have only one child. It must be devastating when you are in a Chinese rural farmer´s situation and your only child is a girl. In this case I can understand why gendercide 7 is committed.

I know that this is an unpopular opinion, but having a girl poses an existential threat to these families. You cannot easily condemn this behaviour as it is a result of long-lasting traditions and policies which pushes people into a situation they do not want to be in. It is important to examine a situation carefully before casting stones as it is always easy to judge a situation with morals and ethics when someone has never been in the same situation.

Fact is, the policy has had a massive impact on China´s society and produced an excess proportion of males, but now there are claims that it has an impact on world peace as well. When I first mentioned the theory, my fellow students put it off as an slightly crazy opinion of a feminist, but let me explain what I found.

Some sources argue that a high sex ratio 8 leads to increases in trafficking, rape, prostitution, and overall crime. 9 The sex ratio is of special interest to anthropologists and is monitored for instance by the CIA World Factbook because the ratio emerged as an indicator of sex discrimination in certain countries. 10

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) showed in 2010 what can happen to a country when girl babies don’t count. Within ten years, one in five young men would be unable to find a bride because of the dearth of young women. According to the CASS, China will have 30m-40m more men of this age than young women in 2020. The sex ratio is currently 123 boys for 100 girls; a normal ratio would be 103 to 106 boys per 100 girls.

China´s gender imbalance

The Chinese have a special term for these surplus males: guang gun-er, alternatively translated as “bare sticks” or “bare branches”, indicating, that those male branches of a family tree would never bear fruit because no marriage partner might be found for them.

Females have now the advantage that they can choose their partner and are able to marry someone of a higher societal status. The result is a group with special characteristics that won´t be able to find a marriage partner: lowest socioeconomic class, be un- or underemployed with few ties to the communities and which live and socialise mostly with other bachelors.

Anthropologists explain further why there is strong and persuasive evidence that bare branches can contribute significantly to intrasocietal violence and collective aggression; different reasons are named:

  1. To acquire the resources to attract a mate
  2. High testosterone levels which cause aggression
  3. No or low social ties

The prospect of never finding a partner for life can be one of the greatest fears in a young life and one has to understand Chinese culture, which is collectivistic with a high emphasys on familiy network strenght. Being unmarried must add extra stress on young people. Untethered to a home of their own and without the stake in society that marriage and children provide, enriched with testosterone, an entire class of potentially angry and frustrated men evolves.


Bachelor groups can also be found in the animal kingdom. Fights are the order of the day.

Until now it seems just to be a problem within a society and there is no reason for us to worry then? Maybe you even chuckled at the thought that a group of frustrated bachelors could cause a war. Or you thought that this is again a theory of an enthusiastic defender of feminism?

I can secure you that this is not the case. The (male) author of the study states that high sex ratio societies will tend to develop authoritarian political systems over time because these are better equipped to deal with possible large-scale intrasocietal violence. Thus, one step further away from democracy? What happens to countries in which citizens feel a lack of co-determination became visible with the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria. But is a democracy with loads of angry and frustrated men better than an authoritarian system? I am personally not sure what to favour.

There is further evidence that there had been male surpluses in other historical episodes in China. The Nien Rebellion (1851 -1863) originated with organized groups of bandits from a region in Northern China. Due to female infanticide there was an overall of 129 men to 100 women. 11 This accords with other data found by researchers of Harvard University and University of Montreal. They made the link between permanent, involuntary bachelorhood caused by high sex ratios and violence in historical China. 12  Furthermore, there seems to be historical evidence that the presence of bare branches led to territorial expansion by states, e. g. in medieval Portugal.

In this case we have to worry. There are already signs that China cast an eye at other countries, for instance the Senkaku islands or Tibet. The Philippines are also worried about losing territory. It is arguable that this is due to the mentioned reasons, but who knows for sure?

Concluding, it can be said that the sex ratio is worth to be monitored very carefully. Ironically some anthropologists are probably pawing the ground to get the next statistics, as they might be able to find prove to many other questions of humankind, e. g. if homosexuality is partly influenced by social factors.13. But this only as a sidenote as it is irrelevant for my topic.

With easing restrictions, China might have made the first step to a more balanced gender ratio, but the consequences of this experiment will accompany the society throughout the next decades, or maybe even longer. Next to that,the birth-rates were declining in most countries after contraception was easier available and women became more educated. The birth-rate might have gone down without the policy and not so many families would have been ruined. I personally do not think that an unbalanced gender ratio alone might cause a war but maybe it adds to some other aspects. The short-term-solution for men could be either immigration or emigration. Either emigrate to another country and find a partner there or attract young women to come to China – but this would be counterproductive to population growth.




  5. Dr Yin Yin Nwe, UNICEF´s representative for China, 2011

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