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!


Freiman wrote in Current Events, Conservative Outcomes that China will use there large amount of male children to bolster the military when resources become scarce and or too expensive and stagnant their economy. Maybe it is already happenning?? Freiman believes China's goal is to dominate the east as the US dominates the west and it will take energy to do it. www.gafreiman.com

Shawn Mitchell

I'm not sure this is the right way to bring this up, but I wanted to contact you regarding the decline in crime in the US during the 1990's. My intuition is that the broad adoption of cell phones played an important role in the crime drop but I can't find any studies that mention a connection. Did this theory come up during your research and what if anything did you conclude?


Shawn Mitchell


This is hardly a problem found only in China. Here in Canada, there are one million more single men, aged 15 to 50, than single women, out of a population of 10 million unmarried.

The only explanation that I can see for this is that the imbalance is due to the large influx of immigrants, who are much more likely to be men. Of course, many will eventually select a bride from their home country.

However, I have noted how common it is to encounter never married men at work - and these aren't immigrants. Originally, I attributed this to never married women frequently marrying men who had been divorced but now I wonder if this is just the imbalance at work.

Incidentally, I seldom hear that any are dissatisfied with this. They usually have heard all the tales from the divorce wars and realize how lucky they are. This may occur in China once their social values approach those of the economically advanced countries.



I've read reports about women from neighbouring countries being kidnapped and forced into marriage with Chinese men because of the gender imbalance. Clearly, a shortage of women doesn't make men value us more as members of society - that would take a major cultural shift (or revolution).


I wonder if the sex industry (read hookers, porn, escort service, etc.) is booming or about to take off in China. Surely, thats a great business opportunity. Now, how do I invest in something like that ??? (kidding, of course).


Women won't be more valued. They are more likely to be exploited. As China gains in wealth, more women will be imported from abroad and forced into sexual slavery. This fate awaits many girls in China already.


Here's a scenario to ponder - when China overtakes the US economically, and the American standard of living falls below that of China, lonely Chinese men can start looking to the West for foreign brides. Nice possibility for irony, no?

world traveler

China contues to do two things that further imbalance the population:

1)exporting adult women through international marriage brokers; and

2)exporting baby girls through international adoption.

They have not increased their valuation of women nor do they feel that increasing the imbalance through these channels should be curtailed.


A population imbalance of that magnitude will have some holistic counter-balance on a global scale, most likely in the form of war. It must have occurred to the Chinese government that they have the biggest "expendable" army in the history of the world, perfectly psychologically calibrated to acts of imperialistic heroism as a result of their over-protected upbringing.

The question about women - it is likely that they will be be more prised, but less likely for their brains and creativity than for their breeding capacity. Under these conditions women tend to have less political status and more status as commodities.

God save us all.


To #15. China and Russia's potential for friction in the 21st century is very interesting. Tens of millions of unmarried Chinese men, tens of millions of unmarried women. An densely populated nation and an relative low density nation. Makes you wonder....


I am interested in what generations of kids who have never had a sibling, or maybe most specifically, a generation dominated by boys who don't have a sister, would be like. I could be wrong since I was on the sister end of that relationship, but I am pretty sure that having a sister is a big influence on boys...right brothers?


Kirilius (#15) has a point about an exodus of Chinese men resulting from this. We see a microscopic version of the same phenomenon in the FLDS communities of the southwestern US, which exile young men at the slightest provocation, in order to create a surplus of available young women who can then end up in plural marriages to older men.

If higher criminality accompanies these surplus young men, then the problem may end up being exported to ... wherever it is they end up.

Note the irony here: One of the reasons sons are valued over daughters is their (perceived or real) ability to help or care for parents when they're older. If they end up leaving in order to find available women, this means they won't be around to carry out the parents' intended "mission," meaning their plan backfired.

Axel Molotov

It'd be interesting to see how China's pornography market is doing as a result of this imbalance.


Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese society is so traditionally family-driven. In the US, there are still people who assume something's wrong with you if you're not married with kids, but it won't stop anyone from hiring you or being friends with you to the point where you're shunned from society. In China, where it's taken even more for granted that everyone marries and has kids, men who can't marry have no chance of ever being socially accepted adults.


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

When I was in Shanghai for a conference recently, most of the graduate students that assisted with the conference were female. Lunch conversation included how there are more unmarried woman than men in China, even with the "surplus boys." Young men are unwilling to marry a woman who has more education than they do. Perhaps they meant as a relative basis. Or perhaps the young men emigrate.

Stefan Peterson

"In the nineteenth century the province of Huai-Pei suffered a series of famines that led to civil war. Daughters were despised as another mouth to feed and, quite soon, their numbers began to plunge. As their brothers grew up, they found nobody to marry. Great gangs of disaffected youths grew into a hord of hundred thousands rebels - the Nian. They almost overthrew the imperial dynasty before they were crushed. " - Steve Jones in "Y: the Descent of Men"

Of course, in our enlightened world this will not happen, again ? Or is marriage and family the only way to tame men ?



Russia gave the greatest number of victims in World War II - about 20 million, most of them men. Even more are estimated to have been killed during the time Stalin and his successors ruled the country. This left the country with a small number of men relative to the number of women. Even today Russian men are 88% of the women in the country. This makes for a difference of 10 million. Combined with the fact that alcoholism is a common problem with the men, women did not have much of a choice when looking for a husband. I know for a fact that in the 70s and 80s lots of Russian women got married to foreigners and moved out of the country (within the former Eastern block of course). This was a way to survive and create a family for many women.

If we apply that analogy to Chinese men, I expect an increased number of mixed marriages as well as an increased migration of single Chinese men out of the country. That migration may be already happening to Canada, US and Australia but because of the cultural differences, it will be difficult to start a marriage with a local woman. So I expect also an increased migration to the countries from South-East Asia, which are culturally closer to China than the Western world.



Mike (#13): "it is our general lack of these sorts of pervasive social dysfunctions that will give us a structural advantage compared to other nations in the long run."

Yeah, keep on believing that Manifest Destiny crap and see where America is in 20 or 30 years. It's been steadily losing its economic, scientific and cultural leadership, and there are no signs of this trend reversing.

While there are imperfections in the Japanese model, Japan was never a threat to U.S. economic dominance for the same reason it was never a threat to U.S. military dominance: it's simply too small of a country to overcome a healthy nation the size of the United States.

China and India obviously do not have that problem. And they have the past economic mistakes of the U.S., Japan, and Europe to learn from.

Incidentally, the U.S. has its own set of "pervasive social dysfunctions" to deal with--distinct and different, but no less detrimental than those of China.

1.) For instance, the U.S. in general makes self esteem a greater priority than deserving high self esteem. Our children are continually told by everyone that it's OK if you don't achieve excellence and you shouldn't feel bad about it. As a result, American schoolchildren get DUMBER as they get older. They start first grade at about the same achievement level as their international peers, but by the time they're 18, they're one of the least accomplished.

2.) Along the same lines, compared to other industrialized countries, the U.S. in general doesn't place very much value on education and academic achievement. In Norway and Finland, only the brightest are allowed to teach. Here, those who can't do, teach. In Asia, while young children admire movie and pop stars, they also know and admire their countries' leading scientists. Here, kids want to be like Paris Hilton and Barry Bonds.

3.) Pervasive racism. Sure, racism is pervasive in China and Japan. But it causes less friction there because they are homogenous societies. The U.S. isn't.

I realize these are gross generalities and oversimplifications, but quite frankly, from size alone, the U.S. is already competing at a disadvantage. Even if the U.S. achieve the same growth rates as China, it's going to lose out on sheer size. It has to do BETTER. And I don't think that a belief in our structural supremacy is helpful. Even if it existed. Which it doesn't.


Michael F. Martin

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.


http://home.uchicago.edu/~eoster/hepb.pdf It amazes me that more commentators don't discuss this also in terms of Hepatitus B infection. Government ad campaigns for little girls is all well and good, but vaccinating hep b not only improve quality of life for women, but increases the likelihood of female births.