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Sunday
Mar112007

China's males: looking for war in all the wrong places

Strategists prefer to project, futurists love to extrapolate, and demographers will tell you their data are pure destiny. But, just like history, the future tends to repeat itself by consistently delaying our dreams (my long-overdue flying car) while constantly denying our doomsdays (remember overpopulation or the impending ice age?).

Humanity confounds us prognosticators primarily by being so inventively responsive to all the grand challenges that we so deterministically throw its way. Nowhere will we witness such innovation more in coming decades than in China, slated by confident futurists - take your pick - for both world domination and suicidal self-destruction.

I'm going way out on a limb here and predicting that China will neither rule the world nor self-immolate but simply grow stronger while growing more open, both out of necessity (connectivity requires code) and fundamental confidence (rising income does that).

Internally, China faces many formidable challenges and will somehow manage them all, finessing each in that manner we so often describe as "inscrutable."

That doesn't mean bad things won't happen to China because they will. It just means China will muddle through where it must and break through where it can.

Let me give you an example.

In Chinese society, there is a growing and historically large imbalance between males and females caused by the government's successful efforts to slow down population growth through the one-child policy.

This is not surprising, given that most of China is still rural and such traditional communities favor boys over girls for their labor capacity.

Over time, demographers predict that China will face upwards of 40 million males unable to find mates.

This has led some Western academics to boldly predict the increased likelihood of Chinese military aggression as the government is forced to "burn off" all those excess males through wars of conquest. If not, internal tumult must surely follow.

Here are four solid reasons why that feared scenario will not come to pass.

First, China becomes majority urban sometime around 2020.

As part of that historic shift (the country is undergoing the biggest migration in human history), women will delay both marriage and childbirth.

This will create a two-fold effect: (1) The preference for boys will wane (in modern societies, females are far more likely to care for aging parents) and (2) increased infertility will push desperate couples toward adoption, inevitably choking off China's current flow of baby girls put up for international adoption (the restrictions on which are already tightening).

Second, a number of the excess males will be long gone before this predicted crisis can unfold. The bulk would logically be found in the rural countryside, except many won't.

A certain portion will disappear into urban centers for better jobs and better lives (more on that next), while the truly desperate will simply vanish, sneaking out of the country as economic refugees, invariably to nations without such a sex imbalance. So where there's a will, there's always a way.

Third, overseas tourism is booming in China - both inward and outward. It's predicted that, by 2020, as many as 100 million middle-class and above Chinese travelers will annually venture outside. So, yeah, many of these lonely guys will travel abroad and you know marry abroad.

Just up and marry a foreigner? Certainly we can't expect xenophobic Chinese males to sink so low?

Well, middle-aged Tokyo salaried men, unable to find partners their age, are already doing just that, with their tastes running toward imported Chinese brides (not exactly helpful). Ditto for surplus bachelors in South Korea, except they're going for Vietnamese weddings. Such foreign affairs now account for one out of seven new marriages in South Korea - no longer the "hermit kingdom."

Finally, as for those Chinese males who simply cannot get lucky, there still stands the Confucian responsibility of caring for the elderly. So today's "little emperors," as spoiled single sons are derisively called, become tomorrow's heavily burdened caregivers.

The Chinese call this scenario the 4-2-1 problem - as in, four grandparents, two parents and just one son to support them all in their retirement.

You want a real tragedy? Look at all the elders left to fend for themselves in the countryside in coming years, more than 150 million without much of a safety net.

Will that unfolding tragedy then lead to China's downfall?

Hmm, that is a column for another day.

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