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Economy, Jobs and Business

China’s one-child policy: effects on the sex ratio and crime

4 min


Lisa Cameron, Zhang Dan-dan and Xin Meng

China’s one-child policy, along with Chinese parents’ strong preference for sons over daughters, has led to a profoundly skewed sex ratio. This column reports research showing that intense financial pressure on Chinese men to attract a partner, and the behavioural effects of growing up in a male-heavy environment, are making them more likely to engage in criminal activities. Even if ending the one-child policy does result in a swing back to more girls, it will take at least a generation for the ratio between men and women of marriageable age to approach parity.

Crime has been skyrocketing in China: crime rates have increased more than six-fold over the past three decades. Likely causes include extraordinary economic growth and rising inequality, mass rural-urban migration and the erosion of traditional values.

China’s one-child policy is another potential candidate. While crime has been soaring, the one-child policy, along with a strong preference of Chinese parents for sons over daughters, has resulted in there being approximately 120 boys for every 100 girls in China, or 30 million `surplus’ boys.

These surplus young men, mostly of lower socio-economic status, are pouring out of the countryside and into China’s industrial cities in search of jobs. Many of them are destined to face tremendous difficulties in finding a wife. Add to this the fact that young unmarried men are the main perpetrators of crime worldwide and commit more than two thirds of violent and property-related crimes in China – and the seeds of a crime explosion are sown.

China’s one-child policy

China’s one-child policy was launched in 1979 and limited urban couples to having only one child. In many rural areas, a second child was allowed if the first child was a girl. The strong culture of son preference (particularly in rural areas), along with the availability of ultrasound technology and female infanticide and abandonment, has resulted in a profoundly skewed sex ratio.

Much has been written about the impacts of the policy – including on fertility and sex-ratios, marriage, ageing of the population, the labour market, savings and anti-social behaviour, such as selfishness. Several authors draw attention to the potential for crime and social conflict – and a 2013 study finds that crime is higher in provinces with higher ratios of men to women.

Our research examines the nexus between the sex ratio and crime more closely. Data we collected from male rural-urban migrants who were inmates of a Chinese prison and similar non-inmates shows that the skewed sex ratio accounts for a 34% increase in China’s crime rate, and that the intense financial pressure on men to attract a partner leads them to be more likely to engage in criminal activities.

Men are finding it difficult – and in many cases impossible – to find a wife. Meanwhile, the forces of supply and demand determine that brides are becoming increasingly expensive. It is not unusual for families to expect the bridegroom to supply an apartment and a substantial cash gift, often amounting to more than US$15,000.

This is an impetus for some unmarried men to turn to financially rewarding crimes. A high ratio of men to women in a man’s marriage market (defined in relation to his age and geographical origin) is shown to be associated with higher rates of financial crimes. Violent crime is unaffected.

Furthermore, China’s skewed sex ratio means that boys are growing up in an environment surrounded by many more boys than girls. This male-heavy environment affects boys’ behaviour. They become more impatient, more risk-taking and more neurotic (as captured by behaviour in experimental games and responses to survey questions).

These behavioural impacts explain a further, smaller portion of the increase in crime. Risk-taking and neuroticism are strongly associated with the probability of engaging in criminal activity and being incarcerated.

So, how to combat these pressures? The obvious answer is to reverse the trend in the sex ratio. But that is a slow boat to turn. In late 2015, China moved in this direction by relaxing the one-child policy to allow all couples to have two children. This was largely done for reasons to do with concerns associated with a rapidly ageing population.

Some researchers predict little change in fertility behaviour as the Chinese have become accustomed to single children. What’s more, the financial and other competitive pressures of life limit the ability of parents to feel they can support more children.

But even if the policy does result in a swing back to more girls, it will take at least a generation for the ratio between men and women of marriageable age to approach parity. In the short term, the current marriage market pressures are likely to be sustained and possibly worsen, along with the incentive to engage in crime.


Lisa Cameron
Research Fellow, University of Melbourne
Zhang Dan-dan
Assistant Professor of Peking University
Xin Meng
Research Fellow, Australian National University.