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The security risks of China’s abnormal demographics

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese gathering in Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Catherine Henriette/AFP/Getty Images)
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At the Third Plenum held in November 2013, the Chinese Communist Party announced the establishment of a new National Security Commission designed to increase state security and social stability and provide greater coordination between internal and external security. This linkage between internal and external security is one that security scholars and policymakers have not sufficiently recognized. While external issues such as relations with Japan, Taiwan and North Korea, and concerns related to China’s military power and nuclear weapons, are of major concern to those seeking peaceful relations with China, we argue that the security risks posed by China’s abnormal demographics must be taken into account when assessing China’s security. Fertility patterns, high birth-sex ratios and the resulting gender imbalance, when coupled with inequalities between rural and urban workers, have contributed to increases in societal instability characterized by a rise in violent crime, the numbers of secret societies and gangs, the levels of muscular nationalism, and prostitution and trafficking in women and children. These national effects, in turn, can have regional and international repercussions as they undermine national stability and security.

According to China’s 2010 Census, men currently outnumber women by at least 34 million, an imbalance in large part due to China’s fertility policy (known as the one child policy) and a preference for sons. Despite government attempts to stop the use of sex-selective technologies to manipulate the sex of offspring, birth-sex ratios remain high (118-120 male babies for every 100 female babies born in 2010). The dearth of women among the young adult population is of particular concern to demographers, who estimate that the sex ratio of the marriageable population will continue to rise and will peak between 2030 and 2045, with the effect that at least 20 percent of men will be unable to marry. A surplus of 40-50 million bachelors throughout the mid- to late 21st century will have a significant effect on China’s stability and development as a nation: Male criminal behavior drops significantly upon marriage, and the presence of significant numbers of unmarriageable men is potentially destabilizing to societies. In the case of China, the fact that a sizeable percentage of young adult males will not be making that transition will have negative social repercussions, including increased crime, violent crime, crimes against women, vice, substance abuse and the formation of gangs that are involved in all of these antisocial behaviors.

The high concentrations of involuntary bachelors, or bare branches, in China’s poorer provinces (there are already a significant number of “bachelor villages”) may also be exacerbated by the presence of ethnic minorities in these areas, where the gender imbalance may contribute to social tensions. Those who leave the unproductive rural areas to seek employment in urban areas are faced with problems created by China’s hukou (household registration) system, which denies access to economic and social benefits to illegal migrants in China’s “floating population.”

The floating population is rapidly changing the landscape of China’s urban areas, and the Chinese government is aware of both the benefits and risks posed by internal migrants. The current floating population is young — 62 percent are under 35 and the majority of them have a junior high school level of education or less, and are only slightly more male (53 percent), although the sex composition of the floating population varies by geographic area and by employment sector. In Guangdong province alone, the male migrant population outnumbers the female population by 3.1 million. The gender imbalance of migrants in these areas may mean that these areas are at risk for higher levels of crime and greater social instability. An estimated 10 percent to 30 percent of the floating population participates in criminal secret societies known as black societies (heishehui), groups believed to account for the majority of criminal activity in China, or in “dark forces” (e’shili), the more loosely organized criminal gangs. At the moment, China views the rise in gangs and increased crime rates as local, not national, problems, although many gangs are operating both nationally and internationally, and often with the collaboration of local government officials, as demonstrated by the 2009-2010 crackdown in Chongqing.

Compounding the situation is the March 2014 announcement of the state’s National New-Type Urbanization Plan, which aims to increase urbanization to 60 percent by 2020, and plans to ensure that 45 percent of those in urban areas have official urban status. This mandated aggregation of the population will not only deepen resentment among many urban and rural residents, but will also provide an improved logistical foundation for recruitment of the disaffected by groups with grievances against the current system.  The ranks of the disaffected surely include China’s bare branches, who have been fodder for such groups throughout Chinese history.

China’s demographic situation is further complicated by the increase in its aging population and the decline in the labor force. China is different from the other aging countries of the world in that a) it is not yet fully developed, b) most of its population is still poor, and c) it has the highest sex ratio in the world. By 2055, China’s elderly population will exceed the elderly population of all of North America, Europe and Japan combined, and this is exacerbated by the now declining working-age population. China’s impressive economic growth has been facilitated by its expanding working-age population: The population ages 15-64 increased by 55 percent between 1980 and 2005, but this age cohort is now in decline due to the declining fertility rate. In 2012, the working age population declined by 3.5 million and is expected to continue to decline unless there is a dramatic shift in China’s fertility rate.

Aging will have a negative effect on economic growth through higher pension and healthcare costs, fewer low-income jobs, increased wage depression, slowing economic growth and job creation, declining interest from foreign investors, lower entrepreneurship, and higher budget deficits. Labor force declines also translate into lower tax revenues for governments, and if these governments are tempted by deficit financing, global financial stability may be compromised, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Global Aging.

When we look at global aging, China’s aging, and the synergy between the likely economic effects of aging and the effects of abnormal sex ratios in China, the confluence is likely to be dangerous for the Chinese government. There appears to be an inevitable economic slowdown approaching in the global economy that will last well beyond the effects of the Great Recession of 2008, primarily due to aging trends in the most advanced economies. This global slowdown is likely to amplify the economic storm clouds already looming for China. A society with a masculinized young adult population, such as China’s, is likely to respond to significant economic hardship with heightened domestic instability and crime. As a result, the Chinese regime may be hard pressed to maintain its usual control over society and to meet this internal security challenge, the regime may well become more authoritarian.

The Chinese government realizes that they must maintain the respect of their bare branch populations: a government perceived as weak invites the contempt of its society’s young men who might also exploit vulnerabilities to undermine the regime’s control over the country. Governments quickly learn they must react swiftly and aggressively in the wake of perceived slights and insults from other countries. A “virile” form of nationalism begins to creep into the government’s foreign policy rhetoric, and it is stoked domestically to keep the allegiance of young adult bare branches. Faced with worsening instability at home and an unsolvable economic decline, China’s government may well be tempted to use foreign policy to “ride the tiger” of domestic instability. The government’s fanning of nationalist fervor has already been seen in the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, where large and violent protests around the country were accompanied by the dramatic public destruction of Japanese goods and strong expressed anti-Japanese sentiments.

The recent minor relaxation of the one child policy announced at the Third Plenum will do little to address the imbalance in China’s population in future, but there is hope that this is the first of further changes to reduce state control of fertility. Even if sex ratios were rectified today, young adult sex ratios in China will result in a significant gender imbalance in the adult population for the next 30 years. The US needs to be aware of the possibility of greater internal instability if China experiences reduced economic growth, which may disproportionately affect the bare branch population. Furthermore, the U.S. needs to consider how China’s estimated 34-50 million bare branches figure in to the strategic trajectory of its relations with Japan and Russia, as well as nearby states with sizable proportions of bare branches themselves (such as India and Vietnam). U.S. policymakers should be aware that Chinese leaders may perceive a relatively short window of time for China to leverage its rise so as to maximize power and achieve its perceived national interests in the regional and international system.  China’s high sex ratios are not a matter of concern for China alone; as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted, “the subjugation of women is a direct threat to the security of the United States,” and in this case, she is certainly correct.

Valerie M. Hudson is professor and George H.W. Bush chair in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

 Andrea den Boer is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. 

This is the third in a series of posts from a conference “Beyond the Pivot: Managing Asian Security Crises,” held in the Senate Hart Building on April 30, 2014, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.   For more information, visit