Despite obvious differences, Qatar and China have something in common: disinformation, myths and lack of information surround these two countries. Looking at data instead of anecdotes discloses surprising facts and enables a better understanding of these countries’ demographic policies. It also sheds light on how population policies can drive unbalanced sex-ratios.
by Lucia Tamburino and Philip Cafaro
Qatar wasn’t a country we heard much about before this football world cup. This is odd, because there’s a lot of talk about climate change and the need for rich countries to reduce their carbon emissions. But despite being at the top of the list for per-capita emissions, Qatar is usually omitted from such discussions.
Conversely, China is often mentioned in the context of climate change, which is not surprising considering that China is currently the biggest producer of carbon emissions by far. However, China is also the most populous country in the world. Many people argue that rich countries and not China are mainly responsible for climate change, as rich countries have lower total emissions but much higher per-capita emissions. Those people usually pick as examples the US, Australia, Canada and European countries–while systematically omitting Qatar and other Arabian Gulf countries.
This is weird, because Gulf countries are among the richest in the world, with Qatar among the richest for several decades. Qatar scores fourth globally in per capita GDP, well ahead of the US, Australia, Canada and all European countries, with the exceptions of Luxembourg and Ireland.
Even more relevant, Qatar is the country with the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world, by far. Qatar has 32.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions per capita, while the US has 14.7 metric tons per-capita: less than half! Qatar is followed in the ranking by other countries in the Arabian Gulf, albeit with some distance: Kuwait (22.0), Bahrain (20.3) and the United Arab Emirates (19.3). Dependence on desalinated water and air conditioning is a big contributor to these high figures.
Likewise, when considering other indicators of environmental impact, Qatar is often at the top of the ranking. For instance, Qatar is the country with the highest ecological footprint: 14.7 gha/capita, according to the Global Footprint Network. It is followed by Luxembourg (12.8), the United Arab Emirates (9.0) and Bahrain (8.7). Qatar also has one of the worst eco-balances in the world, according to a recent quantitative assessment, again together with several countries in the Arabian gulf.
With this poor environmental record, it is surprising that it took a football World Cup to put Qatar on the media’s radar.
Skewed sex ratios
Another example of misinformation concerns unbalanced sex-ratios in China and the Arab world. As you probably know, in China (and some other Asian countries) there is an unbalanced sex-ratio, especially in rural areas, with males more numerous than females. Another thing that you probably “know” is that the cause of this imbalance was the one-child policy. Under the one-child policy in China, women were mostly allowed to have only one child and therefore, since families preferred boys, women practiced selective abortion, resulting in a surplus of males. This is what the media and some scholars told us and what most people believe. What the media did not tell us is that, with increased access to technologies for prenatal sex detection, selective abortion became a common practice not only in China but also in other countries where boys were preferred over girls. Actually, the idea that the male surplus in China is due to the one-child policy can be easily debunked with a couple of simple questions.
First: did the imbalance first arise in China with the one-child policy? The answer is no. For as long as we have data in the past, a disproportion between males and females has existed in China (and other countries, see below). It was especially sharp at the end of the 1930s, about 50 years before the one-child policy! So, it is clear that it cannot be attributed to that policy, but rather to the anti-female cultural bias among rural populations. Females were less valued than males. As a consequence, female mortality was much higher than male mortality in poor rural families, because girls were the main victims of malnutrition (males were fed first, females only after if there was something left), infanticide, child abandonment, and sale. All these practices were sadly common within poor families in China, especially during periods of crises, massive famines and wars, like the Japanese invasion in the 1930s.
Moreover, the biased sex ratio exists also in many other countries, including countries where coercive demographic policies were never implemented, e.g., Pakistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and some Southeast European countries.
If we look at the data instead of listening to common narratives, we can learn many interesting and perhaps unexpected things. For instance, China is not the country with the most unequal sex-ratio in the world, it is not even in the top 10. There are almost 20 countries with a more skewed sex-ratio.
However, it is true that the sex-ratio imbalance at birth is unnaturally high in China. The estimated value in 2020 was 1.11 (111 male for every 100 females), which is higher than the world average 1.07 (note that most of this is due to biology: naturally, around 5-6% more males than females are born). This suggests that selective abortion in China may still be practiced now, although the one-child policy ended in 2016. The same sex-ratio at birth is observed also in India, which never had a one-child policy. This further confirms that culture more than policy is at the root of the horrible practice of sex selective abortion.
When looking at the sex-ratio not at birth but in other age ranges, even more surprising facts pop up. For instance, in the age range between 25 and 64 years, Norway has a slightly higher sex-ratio imbalance than China. Yes, Norway! This clearly suggests that the causes for an unbalanced sex-ratio can be diverse and include more than demographic policies.
Now, let’s take a closer look at numbers. In China the overall sex-ratio is 1.06, namely 106 males for every 100 females, which is high but comparable with the sex-ratio of many other countries. For comparison, India has a sex-ratio 1.08, Egypt 1.05, Norway 1.03, the United Kingdom 0.99.
At the top of the ranking, in the country with the highest imbalance in the world, the sex-ratio is 3.39: 339 men for every 100 women, more than 3 times more males than females! Can you guess which country this is?
It is, again, Qatar. Qatar is a country where coercive anti-natalist policies were never implemented, yet it has the most unbalanced sex-ratio in the world, more than 3 times higher than China!
Again, Qatar is followed in the ranking by other countries in the Arabian gulf: United Arab Emirates (2.56), Bahrain (1.53), Kuwait (1.38), Saudi Arabia (1.30) and Oman (1.18). The huge disproportion between males and females in Qatar and other Gulf states is caused by massive imports of workers. Many live miserable lives, but are desperate to escape their overpopulated homelands with apparently fewer or worse job opportunities.
When people talk about unbalanced sex-ratios, they typically mention China and point the finger against its demographic polices, while Qatar and other Arabian Gulf countries are inexplicably omitted. Likewise, immigration is seldom mentioned, even if a high sex-ratio can also emerge as the result of certain types of immigration, especially among adult and juvenile age groups. We need more honest information, because the media today do too much cherry picking and make too many omissions. As a result, they contribute to spreading an inaccurate picture of the world and a lot of misconceptions and myths, especially around demographic policies.
For people who are intellectually honest and genuinely interested in a better understanding of the real world, the best advice I can give today is this. First, do not think you know something just because you read it on the media. Second, look for data, look at data, and learn how to understand data. Third, ask questions!
Monica Das Gupta, Why Girls Are Coming Back in Some Asian Countries after Neglect, Scientific American, 2017
Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, Gender Ratio, Our World in Data 2019
Lucia Tamburino and Giangiacomo Bravo, Reconciling a positive ecological balance with human development, Ecological Indicators 2021