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Has China’s one child policy increased crime?

Crime rates in China 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 may, however, have also played a role. At the same time as crime has increased, the one child policy, coupled 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.

These surplus young men are moving in large numbers out of the countryside and into China’s industrial cities in search of jobs. Many of them will struggle to find a wife. That young unmarried men are the main perpetrators of crime worldwide and commit more than two thirds of violent and property crimes in China has given rise to concerns about crime escalation in China.

China’s launched its one child policy in 1979 as a means of reducing population growth in the world’s most populous nation. The policy limited urban couples to 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), coupled 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-ratiosmarriageageing of the populationthe labour marketsavings, 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.

Examining the relationship between China’s sex ratio and its crime rate more closely suggests that the problem is serious. Data collected from Chinese men 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 financial pressure on men to attract a partner makes them more likely to engage in criminal activities.

Men are finding it difficult 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, for example robbery, burglary, drug dealing, illegal business dealings. A high ratio of men to women in a man’s marriage market is associated with higher rates of financial crime. 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. 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.

But some researchers predict little change in fertility behaviour; the Chinese have become accustomed to single children. The financial and other competitive pressures of life also limit the ability of parents to feel they can support more children.

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, and associated crime problems, are likely to continue.

Featured image credit: “Child China” by christels. Public domain via Pixabay.

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