PROVO — Most countries have a fairly even number of men and women. When that balance gets out of whack, society suffers and national security is threatened, according to a groundbreaking study done by a Brigham Young University professor.
A modern surplus of tens of millions of men in China, India and other Asian countries could spill over to international conflicts, said Valerie Hudson, a political science professor whose research will be published this fall in a book by MIT Press.
Conservative estimates are that 90 million women are missing in Asia because societies in that region encourage parents to select sons over daughters through female infanticide and female fetus abortion, Hudson said. The resulting surplus of men puts pressure on governments that must deal with increased crime, gangs and even revolutions.
These men are known as "bare branches" in China because they will never find marriage partners. Conservative estimates project that by 2020, China will have about 30 million of these unmarried men between the ages of 15 and 35.
Hudson said countries with 30 million surplus males can't afford democracy because they need a heavier hand to crack down on rising crime and political instability. Nations with bare-branch syndrome historically seek to rid themselves of these troublemakers. For example, in the 1400s the king of Portugal instigated a crusade against Muslims in North Africa to divert bare-branch bands whose piracy and robbery at home threatened his monarchy. The king didn't care if the men ever came back, Hudson said.
India also could have 30 million surplus young adult men by 2020. Though China, India and Pakistan traditionally have had high gender ratios favoring men, the trend has spiked since 1985, when prenatal sex-selection techniques like ultrasounds became available.
"Sex ratios in Asia are becoming skewed to a degree perhaps unprecedented in human history," Hudson said, even though governments strongly condemn gender selection in their countries because young unmarried men are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and more prone to murder and rape.
If Asian societies don't change soon, Hudson fears that, like in Portugal six centuries ago, a government might decide it would be better off without many of its surplus men.
"I'm not suggesting China and India are growing huge armies to send into battle," she said. "But when we get to 2020 and we think about the standoff across the Taiwan Strait, might it be a factor that China will have 30 million surplus males?"
She is also concerned about the rivalry between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons and large numbers of surplus men.
China has reacted to its problem with massive public works projects that draw single men out of population centers to the western frontier. It also has a strict but ineffective law that forbids doctors from revealing the sex of an unborn fetus to parents.
"It's absolutely illegal," Hudson said, "but people say, 'OK, we need more women, but not in my family. If I'm only allowed to have one child in China, by golly, it's going to be a boy.' It's not a legal problem, it's a societal issue."
Why boys? The societal motivation is reflected in a Chinese proverb: "Raising a daughter is like watering a plant in another man's garden." Forms of the proverb can be found in all of the countries Hudson studied. The moral is that resources are wasted raising a daughter who will leave the family.
In fact, the most successful government policy in reversing the societal bias is social security programs for the elderly. Asian parents rely on sons to care for them in their old age. Hudson said parents who don't need to worry about that suddenly can afford to have daughters.
Hudson spoke at the International Forum Series hosted by BYU's David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies. The lecture's title is the same as the book she is co-authoring with Andrea Den Boer of the University of Kent at Canterbury, "Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population."
Hudson believes it is appropriate that crime and instability follow in societies that choose males over females.
"If you kill your daughters, if you sow the east wind, you will reap the whirlwind," she said. "This is appropriate. This is a case of divine justice."