Abortion and Crime: The Flip Side

If Roe v. Wade contributed to the U.S. crime drop of the 1990’s, could China’s one-child policy be having the opposite effect today?

When the Chinese government instituted the policy in 1979, it touched off a wave of sex-selective abortions as pregnant couples decided that if they could have only one child they would benefit most from having a boy. That helped leave modern China with the largest gender imbalance in the world. Today, there are 37 million more men than women in China, and many of the boys are growing up unable to find a job or start a family.

So what are these “surplus” boys doing to fill their time?

In The New Republic, Mara Hvistendahl reports that as the first generation of one-child boys have reached adolescence, the youth crime rate in China has more than doubled, as idle and frustrated boys turn to crime “without specific motives, often without forethought.”

We’ve looked at the effect of unwantedness on children. But what happens when unwantedness hits a generation of men as they get older?

P.S.: Mara Hvistendahl is a former research assistant of Dubner’s who, a few years ago, took the great leap of moving to China because she thought it would be a great place to be a journalist. Go Mara!

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  1. mbirchmeier says:

    One of my future in laws is of the opinion that instead of crime, these single young men will be mobilized into China’s army for the purposes of increasing China’s dominance.

    Granted this sounds like a bit of a conspiracy theory, but it might end up happening just to keep the men from ‘idle crime’.

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  2. Lx443 says:

    Very interesting topic. We all wondered what would happen to this unwittingly unbalanced generation of young Chinese men. Some of us wonder what future social effects will be realized by affluent westerers predominantly selecting baby girls.

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  3. NuclearMom says:

    Hmm, be careful what you wish for. When I first heard about the selective female infanticide in Asia, I thought, great! In one generation, a shortage of women will make them tremendously more valuable. It will be worth it to invest in education for your daughter, because she will be a sought-after prize. Then, when women are valued more highly, birth rates will swing back into balance and the whole society will be better off.

    I never thought about what all the unmarried — un-marryable — men would do in that first generation. As someone who believes that at least some small part of the suicide bombing in the Middle East is driven by men with no prospect of sex or marriage, I agree with the projections of increased violence and perhaps the increased attractiveness of war as a way to thin the “surplus” population.

    A huge, spontaneous social experiment indeed.

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  4. Ms. this may seem funny/but no joke says:

    Dear Nuc/mom

    i am concerned about this problem. Perhaps the Chinese need to look back in their history. They would find out that they came to the brink of a war of each against all. And were it not for an experiment of a sort, we would not be here at all.


    A friend to China

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  5. scott cunningham says:

    The female shortage may play a role. See Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population for why.

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  6. Jason says:

    Obviously no one is saying this is the only reason crime is increasing, but I think–particularly with China–there are a lot of other factors invovled, such as the rapidly increasing wealth of some people and (in a related note) the gigantic gap between rich & poor. I mean, 20 years ago, what was there to steal? A pigeon bicycle? And you wouldn’t dare steal from someone who had money, because it probably meant they had power in the Party, and stealing from someone like that would not lead to good things. (Like, say, living.)

    I’d also be interested to see how the crime rate has increased as the amount of “stuff to steal” (or whatever) has increased.

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  7. OCH says:

    So a surplus of men is building the manufacturing base which is what gave China a jump start into the world’s economy. Now there are too many men so women’s value is being raised with increased education as one positive effect. This only means that the future holds a broader, better educated population for China across the gender divide.

    Millions of ‘little emperors’ will only serve to turn China into a more individualistic society. These little emperors are demanding more as a natural characteristic of being single children which will lead to them creating more chances and eventually receiving greater rights across the board.

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  8. Michael F. Martin says:

    Some enterprising third-world country (maybe in Africa) should use some of its rents from natural resources to attract these men into doing useful work for the world.

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