Demographic Crisis Meets Online Shopping

Courtesy of Inventor Spot.

Courtesy of Inventor Spot.

By Maya Durvasula.

Singles’ Day (Guānggùn Jié or光棍节), the Chinese anti-Valentine’s Day that broke holiday sales records last Monday, should be hilarious. Singles’ Day is celebrated on 11/11, a day when even the calendar serves as a reminder of an individual’s “single” status.

Since its creation by college men in the 1990s as a celebration of their bachelorhood, and its subsequent appropriation by China’s retail industry, Singles’ Day has become the largest online shopping day of the year, as single people (and, as a gesture of sympathy, their coupled-up friends) are encouraged to shop for everything from mobile phones to silkworms. Last Monday, Alibaba, China’s largest online shopping platform, brought in more than $9.3 billion from Singles’ Day sales alone (approximately three times what U.S. consumers spent on Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined).

Unfortunately, when we take a look at the demographic patterns that have resulted in such a large number of single men in China, Singles’ Day becomes decidedly less whimsical. By 2020, approximately 30 million more men will reach adulthood than women, and estimates suggest that, by 2050, 10 to 15 percent of Chinese men over the age of 25 will be unable to find wives because of the scarcity of women.

In 1990, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote an article for The New York Review of Books that noted a devastating demographic reality when surveying the Asian continent: more than 100 million women were “missing” from the Asian population. That is, as a consequence of sex-selective abortion, infanticide, and early childhood malnutrition, 100 million women who, according to Sen’s estimate, ought to have been present in the Asian population were not. Subsequent research by individuals like Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, places the number of “missing” Asian women at more than 160 million, a figure that Hvistendahl notes is higher than the entire female population of the United States.

According to recent Chinese demographic reports, 118 boys are born for every 100 girls, one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world. The “natural” ratio is considered (at most) 105 boys born for every 100 girls, while biologists consider anything over 106:100 naturally impossible. According to United Nations Population Fund data, although the sex ratio at birth is skewed for the first child, it increases dramatically for all subsequent children, as parents become increasingly desperate to have a boy. According to 2005 data, in provinces where parents were allowed to have a second child if the first was a girl, boys outnumbered girls among second-born children 143 to 100. 

The causes of this gender imbalance are well-documented and can be attributed largely to an underlying cultural preference for boys and more directly to two events that occurred toward the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 80s: the implementation of China’s “One-Child Policy” and the widespread availability of ultrasound technology.

In Chinese society, shaped largely by the Confucian patriarchal model, a higher value is ascribed to sons than daughters. Sons carry on the family name, have a higher wage-earning capacity, receive inheritance money, and remain at home to care for aging parents.  Investing in a daughter, as a Hindi expression used to describe a similar phenomenon in India goes, is considered like planting a seed in a neighbor’s garden, since a daughter traditionally leaves home and moves in with her husband’s family.

The One-Child Policy, introduced in 1979 and aided by the concurrent introduction of the ultrasound in the 1980s, exacerbated China’s preference for boys by allowing parents to actively choose whether to bring pregnancies of female children to term, translating the cultural preference into actual manipulation of the sex ratio. With most couples limited to one child and ultrasound technology that could reveal the sex of a fetus before birth, experts agree that sex-selective abortion was widely used by parents to ensure that their first and only child was a boy. Although China has increased the number of exceptions to the policy, in what is essentially a piecemeal repeal of the policy as a whole, the impact of 35 years of population manipulation cannot be resolved immediately. 

The ramifications of these population statistics, with considerably fewer women in the population than men as well as a rapidly aging population, amount to what is effectively a demographic crisis. It is worth noting that, in the short-run, China’s “lonely bachelors” have been contributing positively to the country’s annual GDP – up to 2% according to some estimates; according to Columbia University professor Shang-Jin Wei, this is a consequence of the greater value placed on accumulated wealth in the shrinking dating pool. However, with a birth rate far below the replacement rate and a rapidly aging population, the economy is beginning to feel the effects of the skewed population structure. Within the next few years, as China’s older citizens begin to retire, one worker will have to support two parents and four grandparents, a phenomenon graphically represented as an inverted pyramid. The combination of these adverse population trends suggest that China’s growth will decline significantly in the coming years.

The large gap between the number of men and women in the population also brings with it negative consequences for human rights, as the high numbers of single men – guang gun or “bare branches,” in reference to their inability to expand the family tree – have encouraged the development of large human trafficking networks throughout Asia and within China itself. The 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report published by the U.S. Department of State stated that women throughout Asia are forced into prostitution or labor in China, a phenomenon that the report links directly to the one child policy: “The Chinese government’s birth limitation policy and a cultural preference for sons creates a skewed sex ratio… which may serve to increase the demand for prostitution and for foreign women as brides for Chinese men – both of which may be procured by force or coercion.”

Unfortunately, online shopping will not address some of the deeper issues that stem from China’s abundance of single men. While people like Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba and now the richest man in China, may profit from the consumer frenzy that anti-Valentine’s Day ignites, the “celebration” represents a far more sinister reality that China will have to grapple with as its working population ages and its younger population is unable to sufficiently reproduce.

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