Unnatural Selection

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl, Public Affairs, RRP£15.99, $26.99

On a trip several years ago to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, I was captivated, like so many travellers, by the historical sites: the Potala Palace, residence of the Dalai Lamas; or the Barkhor, the warren of shops and holy sites in the town’s centre. But I also noticed a phenomenon I could not find in my guidebook: the city was dominated by men. Unemployed men lounged, drunk, in parks and bus stations. They patrolled the streets, and wandered through markets. For every ten I counted, I would see at most two or three women.

As science journalist Mara Hvistendahl shows in Unnatural Selection, a bracing work of investigative reporting, such scenes are increasingly common in developing nations. From China to India, to eastern Europe and the Middle East, sex ratios – the relative numbers of boy babies to girls – are becoming skewed. The norm should be around 105 boys for every 100 girls. But in China the ratio is around 121 to 100; in India and Vietnam 112 to 100; in Albania 110 to 100.

Within a decade China could have 30m men who cannot find wives, with the situation even more skewed in cities, like Lhasa, that attract migrant male labourers. These imbalances could prove as destabilising as climate change, potentially sparking crime, trafficking, and other wider conflicts.

As news of these imbalances has spread, many have blamed ancient preferences: India’s patriarchal social systems, for instance, or Chinese beliefs that only boys provide for ageing parents. Hvistendahl’s research puts the lie to these lazy claims. In reality the wealthier parts of developing nations often see the most skewed ratios, showing that modernisation and progressive views on female children do not always go together.

Instead, the easy availability of ultrasounds in developing cities often hardens sex preferences, because families can find out their child’s sex and abort the foetus with few social or legal sanctions. Sex selection via ultrasound may be illegal, but small bribes can easily convince technicians to skirt the laws. Some prominent hospitals now even advertise their skills in this area.

The West’s population-control policies of the 1950s and 1960s, fuelled by fears of dwindling resources in the developing world – fears that proved inaccurate – are also to blame. Indian doctors received funding and training from American groups, coming home determined to facilitate sex selection in their own country. Chinese officials also forced women to abort second children. As one sign Hvistendahl saw, touting the government line, declared: “You can beat it out! You can make it fall out! You can abort it! But you cannot give birth to it!”

Bachelor nations are dangerous for women too. Hvistendahl follows one typically depressing story, of a woman kidnapped in Vietnam and brought to China by a trafficking syndicate and forced into prostitution, having sex with tens of men each day. This woman is rescued, but returns to Vietnam scarred, and infected with HIV.

The grim consequences of this approach are now being felt. Marriage, scientists suggest, makes men more peaceable, lowering testosterone and lessening violence. Hvistendahl chronicles how China’s new permanent bachelors are buying up weapons, while crime rates are rising in those Indian and Chinese cities with the most skewed ratios. For now these angry young men find outlets in guns and drugs, but if they united they could spark greater instability – as in the 19th century, when unequal ratios contributed to rebellions in the countryside that ultimately led to the overthrow of China’s last emperor.

China’s neighbours now fear that, in trying to find an outlet for its surplus men, Beijing will utilise another traditional approach: enlarging its military. One Vietnamese official warned me that of everything he fears about a rising China, a large pool of unmarriageable, itinerant men worries him most. And with good reason: from the early Roman republics to the 19th century American west, societies with surplus men often enlisted them into military service, and found new lands to conquer. And in recent years China has indeed drastically expanded the paramilitary People’s Armed Police.

Some developing nations have begun to recognise the need for action. With recent surveys showing its ratios worsening, India has created a new body to monitor hospitals. China has also gingerly begun to discuss relaxing its one child policy. But even if wiser policies follow it will take a generation for these unbalanced nations to get their populations back in balance. And in that time, those millions of angry, unmarriageable men could cause plenty of havoc.

The writer is fellow for south-east Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations

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