top of page

A Surplus of Men, a Deficit of Peace

Many of us who watched the parade of new politburo members walking on to the stage at the recent meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress were struck by the total absence of women. Unlike the previous 25 years, not even one. Women can be found at the top of the arts, sport and in some parts of academia and the professions and occasionally in business but hardly at all in politics. It’s a man’s world. Yet none other than the founder of Communist China, Mao Zedong, said that “Women hold up half the sky”. China is the world’s most notable laggard when it comes to supporting the advancement of women. Five years ago there was a sharp rise in feminist activity, especially concerning men abusing their positions of authority to gain sexual favours. But the Party clamped down on it.

We should return to the Chinese census of 2000 that reported that there was an extraordinary imbalance in the birth-rate - 117 boys were being born for every 100 girls. In southern Hainan province the gap widened to an astonishing 135/100 ratio. About 97% of all unmarried persons aged between 28 and 49 were male.

China has probably been the world leader in using cheap scans to enable parents to know the sex of their child in the womb and, despite breaking the law, to find a doctor who will abort a foetus for no more reason than it happens to be female. However, this practice is also widely practised in many other Asian countries. India is not far behind. Adding the two countries together, according to Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, writing in Harvard University's quarterly, International Security, there are now "between 62 and 68 million missing females in Asia". The historical record suggests that societies that breed surplus males end up with more crime and with a higher propensity for nationalist movements and the urge to go to war. China and India have ended up with around 30 million young surplus males. They have no brides, no families, and thus will tend to be roamers, migrants and putative warriors. Those who think that by a quick fix they can boost the family fortunes by getting rid of apparently useless girls will find all too quickly that having sons grow up that lose out in the highly competitive stakes for gaining a wife quickly trade away their society's natural charm and stability. The equilibrium of everyday life will be gradually but surely undermined by the horrors of surplus testosterone.

Whatever else the female does for the male she calms him down and gives him a centre of gravity, opens doors to other interests outside the boys' own world, smothers him with family life and family responsibilities, and perhaps (as in my case) gives him both a reason to be and the chance of daily success that endures, although the world outside may be undermining him, thwarting him, and perhaps on occasion besting him. Even in the most male orientated or most female liberated of cultures these essential truths seem to hold.

According to one study "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright "an unmarried man between 24 and 35 years of age is about three times as likely to murder another male as a married man the same age". Another study by Allan Mazur and Alan Both published in the June 1998 issue of the academic magazine, "Behavioural and Brain Science", argues that testosterone levels in men who court women and then marry drop relative to men who do not. "Testosterone levels may explain the low criminality found among married men".

Hudson and Den Boer have done some intriguing research on the effect of male dominated populations. One study was of the Nien rebellion in China of 1851-63, finally quelled in 1868. This occurred in the poor area of Huai-pei in northern China. After a particular bad period of failed harvests the people began a policy of female infanticide, and between one fifth and one quarter of all females were killed as children in the hope that the remaining boys would be more adept at bringing in an income for parents who knew they would age prematurely. In reality, bereft of brides, many young men took to banditry. They began as salt smugglers but ended up attempting to overthrow the Qing dynasty. At the peak of their rebellion there were some 100,000 of these "bare sticks" as they were called. The imperial government was compelled to import foreign arms and modernize its army along Western lines. Only then was the rebellion crushed.

There is much more of this kind of research in the article and doubters should look up the original. Common sense suggests there is something in it, even though we know the pogroms in Rwanda took place in a society that had an almost perfect sex ratio. Of course, the sex-imbalance theorists cannot explain everything and violence and war come about for a wide number of reasons, from environmental stress in the case of Rwanda to the vanity of politicians in the case of the First World War. Yet this theorizing perhaps explains why, when Britain lost so many of its young men in the trenches of World War 1, a female dominated post war society helped propel Britain for a while into serious disarmament and a near pacifist foreign policy.

In an important article in Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama has wondered whether a democratic country's propensity towards a peaceful foreign policy is better explained by the status of women in democracies than by the simple existence of democratic institutions themselves. It could explain in part why the U.S. and Britain are more warlike than the Scandinavian countries. And Asian leaders should start to ask themselves if war between India and China or India and Pakistan (another sex imbalanced country) are rather more likely in the coming years because what is still (albeit less so than before) going on today in village hospitals and doctors' surgeries all over Asia. A surplus of men, a deficit of peace, perhaps?

In recent years China has started to grapple with its sex imbalance. Parents are now allowed a second child which removes a lot of the social pressure to make sure the one and only is male. There is stricter control of private scanning. There are increased penalties for infanticide. Generally, Chinese society is evolving in the direction of young couples not caring about the sex of their child. But, inevitably, it will take decades to restore equilibrium. Until then we should probably expect a more nationalistic and warlike China, Pakistan and India.


bottom of page