Friday, June 5, 2009

China's Excess Males, Bride Prices & the Commodification of Women

In response to this Wall Street Journal article about the male/female ratio in China leading to high bride prices, and scams by runaway brides stealing the bride price:

Thanks to its 30-year-old population-planning policy and customary preference for boys, China has one of the largest male-to-female ratios in the world. Using data from the 2005 China census — the most recent — a study published in last month's British Journal of Medicine estimates there was a surplus of 32 million males under the age of 20 at the time the census was taken. That's roughly the size of Canada's population.

Now some of these men have reached marriageable age, resulting in intense competition for spouses, especially in rural areas. It also appears to have caused a sharp spike in bride prices and betrothal gifts. The higher prices are even found in big cities such as Tianjin.

A study by Columbia University economist Shang-Jin Wei found that some areas in China with a high proportion of males have an above-average savings rate, even after accounting for factors such as education levels, income and life-expectancy rates. Areas with more men than women, the study notes, also have low spending rates — suggesting that many rural Chinese may be saving up for bride prices.

Blogger Kenneth Anderson writes:

[As] a moderate libertarian . . . my operating assumption has generally been that a shortage of females in a suitable place . . . would mean that women would be able to command a suitably high marriage price, and contract for favorable plural marriage conditions. . . . . Exposure to the wider world, however, has left me persuaded that abstract libertarianism must sometimes give way to the realities of cultures and actual conditions. My view today is that - drawing on conversations with [demographer Nicholas] Eberstadt - it was far more historically common, and almost certainly the more common direction of things today, that in a world with scarcity of women - especially in a world of scarcity of females and yet a cultural preference for male births - the result would be increased treatment of women as property. More valuable property, yes, but increasingly as property precisely as the perception of its value increased.

I, too, had speculated that the scarcity of women in China might give them more bargaining power. I've also thought that Confucian barriers to marriage (not knowing their family history or blood line) would disappear for orphanage girls as women became a scarce commodity. But I wonder if Anderson has the better of the argument -- increased commodification of women will further disadvantage them. Certainly we've seen one side effect in China already, women kidnapped and forced into marriage (remember the moving scenes from Lisa Ling's National Geographic documentary China's Lost Girls? (BTW, did you know that the Laura Ling who is being held in North Korea and tried as a spy is Lisa Ling's sister?)).

Anderson cites one book, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population, by Valerie M. Hudson & Andrea M. den Boer, that is immediately going on my reading list!

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