Thursday, April 29, 2010

Bare Branches and Knife Attacks

In the past two days, men have attacked different groups of kids with knives in China.  And a month ago another guy did this, and was just executed.  What is going on here?  In reference to the executed attacked, "Authorities said he carried out the attack because he was frustrated at "failures in his romantic life," Xinhua said."  It would be premature to say that all of these attacks are due to "romantic failures."  But it does suggest a hint of what some scholars have predicted: the legacy of tampering with sex ratios is likely create more conflict.

Hudson and Den Boer argued in 2002 that the focus on limiting population growth combined with the preference for male children not only unbalanced the ratio of boys to girls, but by doing so, created the seeds of future conflict.  They essentially showed that China was "missing" more than 86 million women in 2001.  And the other side is also true:

Selection against female offspring produces an excess proportion of males in
society: surplus males. Given the long history of son preference in China, it is
not surprising that the Chinese have a special term for such surplus males:
guang gun-er (also transliterated as guanggun, guangguer, or guanguen), alternatively
translated as “bare sticks” or “bare branches,” indicating those male
branches of a family tree that would never bear fruit because no marriage partner
might be found for them
Thus leads to the following table--focusing on men of a certain age:
Table 4. Surplus Males, Aged 15–34, China.    
Year     Surplus Males     Source of Information    
1990     14,857,587     U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base    
2020     29,207,874     Calculated using birth sex ratio of 111.3 for 1985–89; 118.2 for 1990–94; 115.4 for 1995–99; and 115.0 for 2000–04, with adjusted Life Table Survival Ratio (LTSR)    
2020     33,059,694     Calculated as above, without adjusting LTSR    

Why is this problematic? Because surplus males are not just single but have few if any romantic attachments at all (the article distinguishes between single and surplus).  They become "losers" on this realm of competition, and then what?
The behavior of young surplus males also follows a broadly predictable pattern.
Theory suggests that compared with other males in society, bare branches
will be prone to seek satisfaction through vice and violence
, and will seek to
capture resources that will allow them to compete on a more equal footing
with others.
And there is evidence to back this up, which the authors produce..  The problem with the numbers in China (and in India, and a few other Asian countries) is that the more bare branch guys there are, the more they are likely to congregate and then their behavior will tend to converge towards the worst acting guys.  And there are significant political implications, as demonstrated in past episodes of so-called high sex ratio polities: authoritarianism and violence.  Indeed, how do you adjust the ratio to be less out of whack?   Get rid of the extra men.  How do you do that?  Encourage gender specific emigration?  Engage in expansion and send the men out to colonize the distant territories.  Develop large armed forces and then deploy them where they can be reduced through enemy fire.

This does not bode well for China, India or their neighbors.  Prosperity will not help in the short term since money will not create millions of single women for them to meet and date.  I guess one could imagine the Chinese government suddenly trying to import women from around the world, but that seems unlikely.  It would then, of course, create high sex ratios elsewhere. 

It could be the case that these men attacking kids with knives is entirely unrelated to the growing problem of bare branches.  I am pretty ignorant about China and about the implications of high sex ratios.  On the other hand, not everything I have read in my career has stuck in my head so firmly as this piece.

Demography is not destiny necessarily, but we ignore demographic realities at our peril.


Steve Greene said...

Just between you and me (and whoever else reads this comment), I hate the "read more" thing except for really long posts or spoilers. It is usually just super-annoying. It's only okay, if you've got really cool blogging software like Nate Silver, so that it does not actually direct you to a new page and you can keep scrolling through. Until you're Nate Silver, you should consider using this more judiciously.

Brandon Valeriano said...

When teaching this in class I referred to Bare Branches in a similar way to the underpants gnomes. First you get underpants, then ?, then profit. To me the argument is similar. First you have no women, then ?, then conflict/violence/etc. There is no causal linkage. Why do too many men cause problems? Cause they are bored, testosterone, gangs, etc? All these 'causes' have different preconditions from the no women hypotheses.

Besides, should we not assume that the women these guys were trying court obv knew there was something wrong with these guys? They are psychopaths. No wonder they were unlucky in love.

Steve Saideman said...

Best comment for 2010 thus far: cites underwear gnomes and then comes up with a nice reverse casuality/spurious correlation argument. Well done, sir.