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China's One Child Policy Changing to Balance Sexes?

Zhang Bo |Getty Images

Reports that China is considering backing off its notorious one-child-per-couple policy in the next five years may have more to do with a social imbalance—too many men, too few women—rather than global economics.

The move would end a three decade old policy and allow Chinese couples to officially have more than one child, something experts say is needed in the years ahead.

"Some 22 million Chinese men won't be able to marry in the next 10 years or so because there aren't enough women," says Susan Greenhalgh, a professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine and author of a book on China's one child policy.

"All these unmarried men scare Chinese officials," Greenhalgh goes on to say. "They become 'sex starved bachelors' in the minds of officials, on the prowl disrupting the social order. And social order is very important there."

That social order has already been disrupted, says Clayton Dube of the U.S.—China Institute in Los Angeles, California.

"The people who won’t be able to marry are poor rural men," Dube says. "This has created kidnapping and other problems. Families have adopted girls at the age of three to raise them with their sons in order to get them married."

While the possible change in policy may be to address the younger age range, it's also aimed at the economics of the country's older population. According to the U.S.-China Institute, some 300 million Chinese will be over the age of 65 in the next 10-20 years, and there won't be enough young people to care for them.

"There's a shrinking pool of workers to provide financially for the elderly," says Dube. "This would help ease the pain. China needs to generate 20 million jobs a year to help the elderly, and they need people to fill those jobs."

The effect on the elderly as well as the young has been a product of a misguided policy, adds Dube, who taught in China from 1983 to 1985 and married a Chinese national.

"Chinese officials believed the country would remain rural for a long time, so they based their population policy on wrong information. The cities have exploded," Dube explains. "They also thought of it as a national security issue, trying to keep the Chinese population well educated and healthy to compete globally. It's backfired somewhat on them."

If the one child policy is altered, it's not really a sweeping change. Ever since 1979, when it went into effect, Chinese parents have been able to get around the plan by paying a fee. And parents in many rural areas were having more than one child in order to help ease the work load, say experts.

"It's a class issue as much as anything else," says Adam Hanft, CEO of Hanft Projects, a branding and culture advising firm. "What this does is correct an imbalance on who could do what in China. It's levels the playing field for all Chinese."

But having one child is as much a choice as not, says Greenhalgh.

"We have this idea in the West that most people want more than one child," Greenhalgh adds. "It's not the case in China. It's just not cheap to have children in China."

"The better educated women are choosing to have only one child," Dube says. "It's turned women into a very valuable asset. They can pick and choose their husbands and they usually pick the richest. It's very expensive to live in Chinese cities."

As for worries that an even bigger Chinese population would threaten global economic conditions, Hanft says that's overblown.

"China is more of an exporter than importer," Hanft argues. "It would be different if it was the other way around. I think they're finally admitting their policy has been on the wrong side of history."

If the policy change does go through as expected, it will shake up the political landscape as much as the population, says UCI's Greenhalgh.

"For a long time, many Chinese officials sought hard to keep this plan in effect," Greenhalgh says. "There have been political battles over it for years. This is a signal of political change as much as changing a lifestyle. That part of it is huge."

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