Thursday, September 09, 2010

Meanwhile, in China

Authorities are planning to relax the one-child policy. The current policy, combined with the 'preference for sons' (or the 'dislike towards daughters') has resulted in a skewed gender profile:

A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2009 found that China has some 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20.

What are the consequences of a future with lots of 'excess' men? Here different articles appear to disagree. Some argue that those men just won't find wives:

The need for more children to care for parents, plus a gender imbalance that will leave tens of millions of men without wives, are two arguments for a relaxation of the one-child policy

Some expect a darker future for those scarce women:

"The sharp rise in the number of men of marriageable age who fail to find wives will become a big hazard," Tian Xueyuan, deputy director of the Population Association of China, told the China Daily newspaper.

"It will increase incidences of women being bought as wives, as well as abduction and trafficking, and prostitution and pornography," Xueyuan said.

This is one of those topics where gender-reversal really makes a difference. So let's flip the genders and think of some country where many more girls than boys are born. What would our concerns be in that situation?

Would we write about the girls not being able to find a husband when they grow up? Perhaps. But I'm pretty sure that we'd also write about the power this scarcity would have put in the hands of those boys when they grow up. They can pick and choose! They can set their own terms for marriage! They can take multiple wives!

Now go back to the original treatment and notice that neither article suggests any benefits to the scarce girls or women from this situation. Rather, they might be kidnapped! Women in general might be trafficked!

This reversal is useful because it opens our eyes (well, mine, at least) to the power imbalance which is mostly ignored in the kinds of discussions where economists, say, talk about the markets for marriage and who gets the best marriage contract. Those suggest that the scarcer partners will wield extra power.

That's not how reality turns out. Scarcity is not seen as conveying women more power.

What's going on here is pretty obvious. Yes, the Chinese have a 'preference' for sons, but most societies still look at the problem and its remedies through a male lens or monocle. This is not necessarily wrong, in terms of reality, but it serves to remind us that China is still a patriarchal country.