How to Solve China's Gender Imbalance? The 'Babe Tax'

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by Damien Ma

Not my normal beat, but I had to point this one out because there's just so much here!

"China's biggest strategic resource is not oil, not rare earths, not even pandas. It is young women," so argues this amusing commentary in a popular Chinese business rag (in Chinese). It is largely an alarmist take on the well-known demographic imbalance that faces China, where, if I recall correctly, for every 100 Chinese females, there are 110 Chinese males. The recommended prescription? Impose a "mei nu" tax (the Chinese term is a common colloquial reference for "cute girl" or "babe" that anyone who has lived in China for a while will hear frequently) to prevent the export of young, attractive women to other countries.

So this "babe tax" will be bearish for interracial relationships, as the author Luo Tianhao, supposedly an "independent scholar," suggests that while preserving women's freedom of choice in marriage, if they choose to marry an American, or foreigner, a tax will be levied proportionally to the foreign male's salary in his country. Luo notes that apparently a similar policy exists in Belarus, after the president noticed one day that all the female models were imported from other countries. "Where have all our young women gone?!" -- the Belorussian president supposedly demanded. China, of course, is not (yet) known for exporting supermodels, so perhaps such a policy might be more effectively instituted in another emerging market like Brazil? Call it the "Giselle tax," which I'm sure Tom Brady can afford. And I digress...

Luo's policy proposal is, of course, preposterous, if not highly entertaining, and reflects his own musings. New revenue stream for the government that's nationalistic in sentiment! No one likes taxes, but we're taxing the foreigners and saving our women!

Yet it does bring up a much more real problem about China's demographic transition, which has led some to argue that China will "get old before it gets rich." It seems all but inevitable that China will move out of its "youth bulge" or demographic dividends period over the next several decades, as various studies show. Already, reports of labor shortages along the coast, in part because an older generation of migrant workers are less inclined to move, are leading to questions of whether the trends are accelerating. For all his absurdity, Luo highlights figures that claim over the next decade, Chinese 18-22-year-olds will shrink by 40 million and 20-40-year-olds by 100-300 million. If true, imagine the entire United States growing old simultaneously. Most damning of all: By 2020, China could have 30-40 million young men unable to find a wife, creating an listless and frustrated "bachelor nation." (Hint to the executives at ABC: That's the title of your future reality show based in China.)

I can't vouch for the accuracy of those numbers, and I'm sure various estimates are out there. But they all essentially point to a looming challenge that the Chinese government still does not know how to grapple with. Add this to the litany of other big problems that face China over the next couple of decades and you begin to sort of understand why Chinese leaders continue to be so preoccupied with getting their own house in order.

Damien Ma is a China analyst at Eurasia Group.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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