The XX Factor

Economist Says Polyamory Can Solve China’s Gender Imbalance. Chinese Internet Explodes.

Fifty married couples attend a group wedding ceremony in Tai an, China, in May.

Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Could polyamory be the solution to China’s gender imbalance? The New York Times’s Sinosphere blog reports that one economist’s proposal to that effect has become a viral sensation on the Chinese internet.

Xie Zuoshi, a professor at the Zhejing University of Finance and Economics, recently proposed on his blog that a solution to China’s surplus of single men would be to allow women to marry more than one husband. The proposal has provoked a furious backlash from readers who accuse him of “violating traditional morality,” forcing a fed-up Xie to clarify that he was not proposing that plural marriage be mandatory.

Xie, like economists everywhere in the world, was guilty mainly of not understanding that people don’t always respond well to utilitarian arguments for upending social convention. But the controversy also reveals some unfortunate sexist assumptions about the consequences of China’s gender imbalance.

By 2020, China is expected to have about 30 million bachelors, known as guangun, or “bare branches.” About 15 to 20 percent of marriageable-age males will lack potential partners by that time. This is in large part due to the country’s skewed birth rate: About 118 boys are born for every 100 girls in China, compared to an average of 107 to 100 internationally. This is in large part driven by the country’s recently eased one-child policy combined with the banned but relatively common practice of sex-selective abortion. The restrictions on having more than one child caused many families to choose to have boys. It also may have led to the underreporting of female births, as families kept their girls off the books in order to “try again” to have a boy. (While China’s one-child policy gets much of the blame, it should be noted that India, which doesn’t have similar laws, has a similar general imbalance.)

Another reason for the “bare branches” is China’s overall declining fertility rate. Men tend to marry women a few years younger than themselves, so as the younger generations shrink, so do the number of brides.

Much of the commentary on China’s imbalance has focused on the consequences of having so many men: It’s been blamed for the country’s rising crime rates, while young Chinese bachelors saving money in long-shot bids to attract wives have been blamed for imbalances in the global economy. But it would be a mistake to assume that the imbalance benefits women who their pick of an abundance of potential mates. Gender imbalances in China and throughout Asia have been blamed for an increase in sex trafficking and forced marriages.

Among China’s growing urban middle class, the flip side of the guangun are the sheng nu, or “leftover ladies,” a term referring to single women in their late 20s and 30s. Contrary to what you might expect, in the same years that the gender imbalance has increased, the number of “leftover ladies” has also increased. This is mostly for good reasons: In nearly every society in the world, when women become more educated and acquire more economic autonomy, they wait longer to get married and have children as well as being more selective about whom they settle down with. But the presence of millions of unattached men has only increased societal pressure on women to “stop being so picky” and get married younger (there’s also a booming online matchmaking industry).

Xie’s proposal seems like it’s taking this pressure to its logical and ridiculous conclusion. Not surprisingly, a lot of the backlash has come from Chinese feminists. As Zheng Churan, one of the five activists arrested for organizing during International Women’s Day this year, pointed out in response to the proposal, “Behind the imbalanced sex ratio of 30 million bachelors lie 30 million baby girls who died due to sex discrimination.”

It was a bias against women that created this problem, but women seem to be disproportionately expected to deal with it. That used to mean pressure to find a husband as quickly as possible. Now, Xie suggests, they should have to find more than one.