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China: A Future With A Shortage Of Brides, An Abundance Of Elderly (Part 2)

China has gone to extreme lengths to stem population growth with its "one-child" policy. But the government is now facing new, longer-term problems: a shortage of marriage-age women, and an abundance of elderly. The one-child policy has increased the use of selective abortion to allow families to control the gender of their child. The strong preference for sons means that as many as 117 boys are now being born for every 100 girls. The sex-ratio gap has already led to a reported rise in kidnapping and trafficking of marriageable women. The Chinese government is now focusing on how to reverse the bride shortage, as well as how to cope with the rapid "graying" of a country where by mid-century, some predict, one out of every five people will be over the age of 65.

Prague, 6 January 2005 -- China today officially passed a population milestone -- the birth of its 1.3 billionth baby.

A Chinese government official announced the news in Beijing after awarding a certificate to the infant's mother: "The 1.3 billionth citizen was born at 00:02 on January 6, 2005."

And the gender of the history-making baby? A boy.
Chinese media increasingly cover cases of "bride stealing" -- the kidnapping and trafficking of young single women for marriage.

That fact might not surprise China-watchers, who say the country's true population story is not its size, but its composition.

China's one-child family planning policy has largely succeeded in curbing the country's population growth over the past 25 years.

But Chinese officials are now faced with two resulting complications: dwindling numbers of marriageable women -- and larger numbers of elderly born during a post-World War II baby boom.

The international programs division of the United States Census Bureau estimates that roughly seven out of 100 Chinese are currently over the age of 65. Within the next 30 years, that number is set to more than double.

By 2030, elderly Chinese will number some 240 million -- slightly higher than the entire population of Indonesia.

The so-called "graying" trend is an issue facing many countries to varying degrees, including the United States and many in Western Europe. But unlike much of the West, the aging of China's population is taking place at a rapid rate -- leaving the government little time to prepare.

Chinese society has traditionally depended on the family, rather than the state, to care for its elderly. In the past, couples would have as many as six children to ensure a comfortable old age.

But the one-child policy has dramatically reduced the number of offspring parents can count on to provide for them as they grow older. This has forced the state to begin experimenting with pension systems and other reforms.

Loraine West, an economist with the U.S. Census Bureau, says the real challenge will be changing the mindset of rural Chinese, who make up some two-thirds of the population: "The pension program still is largely an urban-based program. And that's where I think you see the change first. An increasing proportion of the elderly are no longer solely dependent on their children; they have a pension to rely on. The rural areas are still, I would say, relatively dependent on their children. But that's where it will be critical to see if the government can successfully expand this program, or put in place something comparable for the rural population. They're going to have fewer dependents. As time passes, they'll be relying on one or two children and it will be increasingly important that they have some other resources available to them."

For young Chinese, an even more worrying trend is the prospect of a future with too many men and too few women.

The one-child policy, a traditional preference for sons, and accessibility to selective abortions have combined to leave China with a strongly skewed gender ratio. The underreporting of girls by families hoping to reserve their "official" spot for a boy is also cited as a cause for the imbalance -- as are, to a lesser degree, adoption and infanticide.

Male babies naturally outnumber female babies throughout much of the world. But in China, the gap has grown unusually large.

In most societies, there are between 102 and 106 male births for every 100 female births. In China, that number is estimated to be as high as 117.

Census Bureau demographer Daniel Goodkind says surplus grooms will eventually number in the millions -- a trend with significant social implications: "The most common one that demographers talk about is called 'marriage squeeze' -- that is, when you have an imbalance in either potential husbands or wives. So that can affect the marital chances of the sex that's in greater supply -- in this case, males. So if you're female in China over the next 20 years, in terms of the number of potential partners, you'll be doing pretty well, assuming it's a free market."

With the one-child policy hitting the quarter-century mark, the sex-ratio crisis is already being felt.

Chinese media increasingly cover cases of "bride stealing" -- the kidnapping and trafficking of young single women for marriage. One recent television documentary profiled a police officer responsible for recovering more than 100 "stolen brides" over the past several years.

Chinese officials are attempting to counter the problem by relaxing some restrictions on the number of children a family can have -- meaning less pressure on mothers to produce a son, and fewer selective abortions. They are also taking steps to criminalize abortions based on gender.

Other social trends may help balance the sex ratio as well. David Osterhout, a journalist living in Shanghai, says China's dramatic economic growth is slowly changing the way some Chinese look at their daughters.

He says with more and more women entering the workforce, daughters are no longer seen as a financial handicap: "The other thing is that I think girls are becoming more prized as society changes, and as women are getting into jobs traditionally reserved for men, and are making salary levels comparable with the levels of men."

Not all Chinese men may be pleased with the idea of a future world inhabited by powerful working women and a shortage of wives. Chinese women, however, may see it in a different way.

See Part 1 of this series, China: Population May Peak Under 'One-Child' Policy