Shanghai resident Mara Hvistendahl, the Asia correspondent for Science, is the author of the acclaimed Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, an engrossing look at the issue of gender imbalance in China and beyond (click here to buy it on Amazon!).
Though her Litfest engagement is sold out, you can also catch Mara at a free talk at Concordia International School’s Rittman Theater this Monday at 7pm.
We (figuratively) sat down with Ms. Hvistendahl to get her thoughts on the gender imbalance issue in China, and also whether polygamy and prostitution will take off in the country as a result of the lack of ladies.
When did you first become aware of the issue of gender ratio imbalance, and what motivated you to write a book on the subject?
In 2000, when I was as a college student in Beijing, we took a class field trip to a kindergarten where boys seriously outnumbered girls. On the bus ride back my teacher brought up the imbalance. That was the first time the problem became vivid for me.
I moved to Shanghai in 2004. By then China’s sex ratio figures were pretty widely reported, but most press coverage on the topic didn’t provide much context to explain why the sex ratio at birth continued to rise. And sex selection was spreading to countries with very little in common with China—Albania, Armenia, and Georgia. I wanted to understand what was going on.
What information did you discover during the course of your research for the book that unsettled or surprised you?
There is so much. Probably the worst finding is that some Western scientists advocated pushing along research into sex selection as a cure to global population growth.
This was premised on studies showing that many women in the developing world continued to have kids because they wanted a son. The idea was to ensure them a son on the first or second try and avoid all those unnecessary—or at least that’s how they were seen—girl births.
When will the problem of gender imbalance reach a critical stage in China?
The big troubles will hit by the late 2020s, when around 15-20% of men of marriageable age won’t have a female counterpart. This will remain the case until roughly 2045—and maybe beyond, if sex selection isn’t curbed soon.
Is the Chinese government aware of the issue, and is there anything they’re doing to address it? Is the problem even solvable in real terms?
The Chinese government is completely aware of the issue. Reports of sex selection happening in the wake of the one-child policy being introduced first emerged in the early 1980s. Wen Jiabao even mentioned the gender imbalance in his address at lianghui last week.
The government has made a few attempts to solve the problem. The Care for Girls program is one such effort. And both prenatal sex determination and sex selective abortion are outlawed. (They’re called “The Two Illegals.”) But with the one-child policy still in effect there isn’t a lot of political will behind enforcing the law.
Don’t sugarcoat it. What’s the worst case scenario for a society experiencing serious shortage of women for men of marrying age? And how likely is it that the worst case scenario would occur in China?
The commodification of women—through trafficking and bride buying—mixed with widespread social unrest. The U.S. State Department already lists the sex ratio imbalance in China as a cause of trafficking in Asia. And young unmarried men are responsible for a disproportionate share of violence and crime.
Do you personally extend any sympathies towards men who would buy a wife from impoverished backgrounds, or engage in other forms of human trafficking to address the lack of women in their communities? What about women who complain of there not being enough decent men in China to date or marry?
I interviewed a few men who had bought wives, and I found myself sympathizing with some of them. At the end of the day they just want what most people in the world take for granted: the opportunity to find a partner. And in some cases they are pressured into buying a wife by their families.
As for the complaint about decent men: no offense to men, but that’s a complaint of women the world over. In New York and Seoul as well as Shanghai, educated professional women increasingly outnumber educated professional men.
But when you look at the overall population in China and many other countries, there are millions of more men than women. It’s just that many of them live in places like Anhui.
Do you think there’s any likelihood that societies suffering gender imbalance ratios would see a shift in social mores to condone homosexual relationships amongst men, but be against the same for women?
Definitely. The gender imbalance may help alleviate social pressure on gay men to get married. And thanks for bringing up lesbian women. Many analysts forget about them when they look at this issue. Pressure on women to marry will almost certainly increase. To some degree the fact that we’re talking about “leftover women” is a sign that it already has.
What about the likelihood that social norms would shift concerning prostitution, or even polygamy, due to gender imbalances?
To be honest, China already has a high proportion of men who report having been to a prostitute compared with, say, the U.S. But the gender imbalance further drives demand for prostitution.
Cases of polyandry—women married to multiple men—have cropped up in both China and India, which is disturbing. But I can’t see polyandry becoming widely accepted.
Does the international community have a responsibility to be concerned about gender imbalance in China and other Asian countries, and if so, what role should they play in addressing the issue?
Western countries played a role in laying the groundwork for sex selection in Asia, and today they bear responsibility for helping solve the problem—which ultimately is a global issue. There is a need for everything from better monitoring of sex ratios to scorecards highlighting countries with the worst gender imbalances. Some reports comparing women’s rights across countries don’t even take the number of women in the population into account. But that is changing.
For more information on Mara Hvistendahl and Unnatural Selection on her personal website, click here, or you can also follow her on Twitter.
Mara Hvistendahl: Choosing boys over girls,and the consequences of a world full of men // Free // 7pm // Rittman Theater @ Concordia International School // 999 Mingyue Lu, near Huangyang Lu, Jinqiao, Pudong（金桥明月路999号, 近黄杨路）// Nearest Metro stop: Yunshan Road (云山路站), Line 6