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China has 37 million more men than women.

Beijing/Alamy Stock Photo

China’s Missing Women

For decades, China’s government enforced a policy that led to a huge gender imbalance. Now it’s dealing with the frightening consequences.

Sixteen-year-old Phyu* grew up in a tiny ramshackle village in the nation of Myanmar, where her prospects were few. But in the summer of 2018 came an offer of a waitressing job, if she was willing to travel for it. Eager for a better life, she got into a van that made its way across the border to China.

After 10 days of traveling, however, Phyu realized she wasn’t going to a job in a restaurant. She tried to run away but didn’t know where to go. The traffickers caught her and locked her in a room. Her phone had no signal. Men who spoke Chinese were brought to see her.

“I had a sense I was being sold, but I could not escape,” says Phyu, now 17. She started to cry, but the trafficker told her to stop because she needed to look pretty for her potential husband.

Phyu was one of many thousands of women and girls from Myanmar who’ve been forced into marriages with Chinese men in recent years. And it’s not just Myanmar: Young women and girls from impoverished parts of Laos, North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Cambodia have also been effectively sold to men in China who are desperate for wives.

Sixteen-year-old Phyu grew up in a tiny ramshackle village in the nation of Myanmar. Her prospects there were few. But in the summer of 2018 she got an offer of a waitressing job, if she was willing to travel for it. Eager for a better life, she got into a van that made its way across the border to China.

After 10 days of traveling, Phyu realized she wasn’t going to a job in a restaurant. She tried to run away but didn’t know where to go. The traffickers caught her and locked her in a room. Her phone had no signal. Men who spoke Chinese were brought to see her.

“I had a sense I was being sold, but I could not escape,” says Phyu, now 17. She started to cry. The trafficker told her to stop, because she needed to look pretty for her potential husband.

Phyu was one of many thousands of women and girls from Myanmar who’ve been forced into marriages with Chinese men in recent years. And it’s not just Myanmar. Young women and girls from impoverished parts of Laos, North Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Cambodia have also been effectively sold to men in China who are desperate for wives.

Jim McMahon

One-Child Policy

They’re desperate because there are 37 million fewer women than men in China—a gap roughly equivalent to the entire population of Poland. That gender imbalance is the result of China’s longtime policy of allowing families to have only one child and the traditional cultural preference for boys. Over the course of the 35 years the one-child policy was in place—it ended in 2016—China was robbed of millions of baby girls as many families used gender-based abortions and other methods to ensure that their one child was a boy.

The impact of this imbalance has rippled across Chinese society, and the surge in “bride buying” from other countries is only one of the effects. Others include rising crime rates in areas with high percentages of unmarried men and a shrinking workforce.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Valerie Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of a book on the issue of gender imbalance. “In a deeply patriarchal society like China, a young man not getting married means he’s no one. He has no respect. You are going to have a population with some serious grievances.”

They’re desperate because there are 37 million fewer women than men in China. That gap is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Poland. China’s gender imbalance is the result of its longtime policy of allowing families to have only one child and the traditional cultural preference for boys. The one-child policy was in place for 35 years before it ended in 2016. During that period, China was robbed of millions of baby girls. Many families used gender-based abortions and other methods to ensure that their one child was a boy.

The impact of this imbalance has rippled across Chinese society. The surge in “bride buying” from other countries is only one of the effects. Others include rising crime rates in areas with high percentages of unmarried men and a shrinking workforce.

“It’s a huge problem,” says Valerie Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of a book on the issue of gender imbalance. “In a deeply patriarchal society like China, a young man not getting married means he’s no one. He has no respect. You are going to have a population with some serious grievances.”

Chinese culture helps drive a traditional preference for sons.

How did China get into this demographic mess? The roots of the problem go back to 1979, when China introduced the one-child policy as a way to limit the growth of the country’s huge population, which is now 1.4 billion, the world’s largest. The thinking was that having fewer people to feed, educate, and find jobs for would enable China’s economy to develop faster.

Then in the 1980s, ultrasound scanners—which are intended for checking the health of developing fetuses but can also show their sex—became widely available across China. Suddenly, pregnant women could easily find out if they were having a boy or a girl. That technology, combined with China’s one-child policy, made many women decide not to have the baby if it was a girl. In China’s Confucian culture, it’s the duty of a son to support and care for his aging parents, and this helps drive the traditional preference for sons.

How did China get into this demographic mess? The roots of the problem go back to 1979. That year, China introduced the one-child policy. It was part of an effort to limit the growth of the country’s huge population, which is now 1.4 billion, the world’s largest. The thinking was that having fewer people to feed, educate, and find jobs for would enable China’s economy to develop faster.

Then in the 1980s, ultrasound scanners became widely available across China. These devices are designed to check the health of developing fetuses. But ultrasound scans can also show a baby’s sex. Suddenly, pregnant women could easily find out if they were having a boy or a girl. That technology, combined with China’s one-child policy, made many women decide not to have the baby if it was a girl. In China’s Confucian culture, it’s the duty of a son to support and care for his aging parents. This helps drive the traditional preference for sons.

Nhac Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images (Ly Thi My); K.M. Chaudary/AP Photo (Mahek Liaqat)

Sold as brides: A Vietnamese woman (left) holds a photograph of her missing daughter, who was trafficked as a bride to China; a young Pakistani woman shows the certificate of her marriage to a Chinese man.

Social Upheaval

The problem peaked in 2004, when 121 boys were born in China for every 100 girls, according to Chinese statistics. Now decades of more boys being born than girls has created a huge shortage of women to marry. According to Human Rights Watch, projections suggest that by 2030, about 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married.

“These men are called ‘bare branches’—branches of the family tree that will never bear fruit,” Hudson says.

The phenomenon is causing vast social upheaval. The shortage of Chinese women means that women have more power in the marriage market—that they can choose better educated and wealthier men, experts say. As a result, the men who can’t find wives will be concentrated in the lowest socioeconomic group. 

The problem peaked in 2004. That year, 121 boys were born in China for every 100 girls, according to Chinese statistics. Now decades of more boys being born than girls has created a huge shortage of women to marry. According to Human Rights Watch, projections suggest that by 2030, about 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married.

“These men are called ‘bare branches’—branches of the family tree that will never bear fruit,” Hudson says.

The phenomenon is causing vast social upheaval. The shortage of Chinese women means that women have more power in the marriage market. In other words, women can choose better educated and wealthier men, experts say. As a result, the men who can’t find wives will be concentrated in the lowest socioeconomic group.

“It’s going to be primarily less well educated, less affluent, more marginalized members of Chinese society who aren’t going to be able to marry,” says Richard Jackson, president of the Global Aging Institute. “And that’s not just a big disappointment to themselves and their families, but it’s also potentially socially destabilizing.”

Some research has shown an increase in crime in parts of China where the gender imbalance is the highest, Hudson says.

China is a society in which men traditionally pay a dowry, or a “bride price,” to a woman’s family to marry. The shortage of women has driven up the accepted costs of these dowries and put marriage out of reach for many Chinese. Ten years ago, typical bride prices in rural areas were $300 to $400. Now they range from $30,000 to $40,000. These inflated dowry costs are causing severe financial hardship and making it even harder for men of more modest means to marry.

The one-child policy was enforced unevenly across the country, so some regions have much wider gender gaps than others do. Henan Province, in central China, has one of the largest gender gaps. According to the 2005 national census, 142 boys were born for every 100 girls.

“It’s going to be primarily less well educated, less affluent, more marginalized members of Chinese society who aren’t going to be able to marry,” says Richard Jackson, president of the Global Aging Institute. “And that’s not just a big disappointment to themselves and their families, but it’s also potentially socially destabilizing.”

Some research has shown an increase in crime in parts of China where the gender imbalance is the highest, Hudson says.

China is a society in which men traditionally pay a dowry, or a “bride price,” to a woman’s family to marry. The shortage of women has driven up the accepted costs of these dowries. That’s put marriage out of reach for many Chinese. Ten years ago, typical bride prices in rural areas were $300 to $400. Now they range from $30,000 to $40,000. These inflated dowry costs are causing severe financial hardship and making it even harder for men of more modest means to marry.

The one-child policy was enforced unevenly across the country. That’s caused some regions to have much wider gender gaps than others do. Henan Province, in central China, has one of the largest gender gaps. According to the 2005 national census, 142 boys were born there for every 100 girls.

Giulia Marchi (Li Weibin); mauritius images GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo (ads)

Li Weibin, a 30-year-old construction worker in Dongguan, has never been able to find a girlfriend (left)Seeking wives: A park in Shanghai hosts a “marriage market” where parents advertise their single sons (right).

A Call for Help

Henan is where Phyu, the teenager from Myanmar, found herself after she was trafficked in 2018 and sold as a bride to a Chinese man named Yuan Feng. After a 10-hour train ride, she arrived in a city that she later discovered was Xiangcheng.

Yuan tried to communicate with her by using his phone as a translation device, but Phyu refused to speak. She was locked in a room with a television. After a while, Phyu pretended to be happy and her husband let her out. She learned the passcode to his phone, and when he was drunk one night, she called her mother back in Myanmar through a social media app.

Phyu was lucky: The call to her mother put the wheels in motion for her rescue. Two months after she arrived in Xiangcheng, police came to her husband’s house and arrested him. A few weeks later, Phyu was back in her village in Myanmar.

But for most of the women sold as brides, there are no such happy endings. And for China, there is no simple way to tackle all the challenges created by the shortage of women.

Henan is where Phyu, the teenager from Myanmar, found herself after she was trafficked in 2018 and sold as a bride to a Chinese man named Yuan Feng. After a 10-hour train ride, she arrived in a city that she later discovered was Xiangcheng.

Yuan tried to communicate with her by using his phone as a translation device, but Phyu refused to speak. She was locked in a room with a television. After a while, Phyu pretended to be happy and her husband let her out. She learned the passcode to his phone. When he was drunk one night, she used his phone to call her mother back in Myanmar through a social media app.

Phyu was lucky: The call to her mother put the wheels in motion for her rescue. Two months after she arrived in Xiangcheng, police came to her husband’s house and arrested him. A few weeks later, Phyu was back in her village in Myanmar.

But for most of the women sold as brides, there are no such happy endings. And for China, there is no simple way to tackle all the challenges created by the shortage of women.

Barry Lewis/Alamy Stock Photo

One-child propaganda: This billboard in Beijing in 1983 told Chinese families they were allowed to have only one child.

Bachelor Crisis

While the current problem in China is young men who can’t find wives, the gender imbalance will continue rippling through the population over the coming decades and causing new problems.

“We’re on a path which is going to presumably lead to an awful lot of elderly bachelors with no children or families in a generation or so,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute. That’s particularly problematic for a country where the elderly depend on their children to care for them.

There’s also a much bigger problem for China. The one-child policy and the sex-ratio imbalance it created is now functioning as a brake on China’s economic development.

“What’s really important is that a rising power needs a growing workforce,” Hudson says. “Because of the one-child policy, China is reaching that tipping point that it’s taking off as a world power at the very time that its labor force is about to shrink because of the one-child policy. Its labor force is shrinking because they’re missing all the women who would be the mothers.”

The current problem in China is young men who can’t find wives. But the gender imbalance will continue rippling through the population over the coming decades. That means it will cause new problems.

“We’re on a path which is going to presumably lead to an awful lot of elderly bachelors with no children or families in a generation or so,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute. That’s particularly problematic for a country where the elderly depend on their children to care for them.

There’s also a much bigger problem for China. The one-child policy and the sex-ratio imbalance it created is now functioning as a brake on China’s economic development.

“What’s really important is that a rising power needs a growing workforce,” Hudson says. “Because of the one-child policy, China is reaching that tipping point that it’s taking off as a world power at the very time that its labor force is about to shrink because of the one-child policy. Its labor force is shrinking because they’re missing all the women who would be the mothers.”

Social experiments have unintended consequences.

Since 2016, couples have been allowed to have two children, but no more. However, many experts say it’s too late: Thirty-five years of limiting families to one child has changed social expectations, and many people—especially those in cities—say they don’t want or can’t afford a second child.

“Even if China completely abolishes population control policies, the sex ratio at birth in China will not return to normal immediately; it will take at least two decades,” says Fuxian Yi, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and a longtime critic of China’s one-child policy. “The bachelor crisis caused by the long-term unbalanced sex ratio will last for at least 50 years.”

For some demographers, there’s a broader lesson to be learned. “Social experiments always have unintended consequences,” says Eberstadt. China’s one-child policy, he adds, “is the biggest social experiment I’ve ever seen, so it has the biggest unintended consequences.”

Since 2016, couples have been allowed to have two children, but no more. But many experts say it’s too late. Thirty-five years of limiting families to one child has changed social expectations. Many people, especially those in cities, say they don’t want or can’t afford a second child.

“Even if China completely abolishes population control policies, the sex ratio at birth in China will not return to normal immediately; it will take at least two decades,” says Fuxian Yi, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and a longtime critic of China’s one-child policy. “The bachelor crisis caused by the long-term unbalanced sex ratio will last for at least 50 years.”

For some demographers, there’s a broader lesson to be learned. “Social experiments always have unintended consequences,” says Eberstadt. China’s one-child policy, he adds, “is the biggest social experiment I’ve ever seen, so it has the biggest unintended consequences.”

*Only her nickname is being used to protect her privacy

*Only her nickname is being used to protect her privacy

With reporting by Hannah Beech of The New York Times.

With reporting by Hannah Beech of The New York Times.

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