A recent report stated there could be 30 to 40 million bachelors unable to find marriage partners in China by 2020.
With such a potential for gender imbalance in the nation, the topic has inevitably triggered hot discussion.
There are adequate reasons for people to worry: the sex ratio reached 116.9 newborn boys for every 100 newborn girls in the fifth national census in 2000 -- much higher than the usual level under natural conditions, which is between 103 and 107.
In addition to numerical disparities, the widening gender imbalance could potentially cause many other social problems, such as crimes like kidnapping women and selling them as brides, dramatic changes in family structure and extra pressure for male citizens in seeking employment and social security.
Although gender imbalance is a national issue, experts in relative fields all agree it is especially critical in rural areas.
Some overseas reports attributed the gender imbalance to China's family planning policy, saying people abort unborn girls after ultrasound scanning just because they are not allowed to have as many children as they like.
This explanation cannot stand against sound reasoning.
Judith Banister, a renowned US expert on demography in Asian countries, pointed out that in cities like Beijing and Shanghai with stronger compliance to the family planning policy, the gender ratio is close to the normal level. Regions where most people tend to have two or three children despite the policy, like Hainan and Henan provinces, witness the worst gender imbalance.
Actually, researchers have observed that sex ratio imbalance at birth in other Chinese or Confucian-heritage populations where family planning policy is not in force -- in China's Hong Kong and Taiwan or in Singapore and South Korea -- also emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.
Li Zhun, a doctor in ethics with Zhongshan University based in Guangzhou, said the gender gap is primarily produced by the tradition of preferring sons to daughters, and this is a problem of social customs and ethics.
Qin Dewen, deputy chairman of the People's Political Consultative Conference of Anhui Province, echoed Li Zhun's view. He said the traditional preference to boys is behind the sex gap. According to Qin's survey across the province in 2003, many rural dwellers still hold firmly to the ideal of having a son to carry on their ancestral line.
However, Qin pointed out that this is not the sole reason for the sex ratio imbalance. Economic consideration is the most important factor making rural families try their best to have sons.
For most rural couples, having a son or several sons means they will have reliable future help on the farm. This is significant because most rural people still depend on labor-intensive agricultural production. And sons can also find jobs in towns and cities to help the family.
More importantly, Li Weixiong, director of the research institute under the State Family Planing and Population Commission stressed that the lack of an effective social security system in rural areas contributes remarkably to the gender imbalance.
Rural residents are not covered by the old age pension insurance available to urban citizens. Elderly parents stay with their sons when they can no longer support themselves. In this way, support from sons is much more tangible and substantial than that from daughters.
In rural areas, families without sons are often less well-off for lack of laborers, and thus they have lower social position in the community.
Some experts also mentioned the easy access to gender screening with ultrasound when they discuss reasons for the sex gap. With this technology, sex-selective abortion is much easier and done more frequently.
The high gender ratio can only be brought down gradually. And to ease the concerns of those who need a shelter in their old age, establishing a social security system making everybody live soundly could be a fundamental way out.
Before that gigantic project can become reality, the cure should also be multiple treatments given the complex of factors shaping the problem.
According to Zhang Weiqing, minister of the State Family Planning and Population Commission, the commission has listed bringing down the sex ratio as one of its three primary goals this year, and measures have been taken to attain it.
An initiative called "Care For Girls," sponsored by the commission, has launched pilot projects in several provinces.
By granting favorable treatment in girls' education, offering small-amount loans to rural families and setting up old age insurance for rural people, the commission is trying to ease the worries of couples who do not have sons.
According to Qin, Chaohu, a city of Anhui Province, had a similar project to help families who do not have sons. After three years' effort, the sex ratio of the city has been lowered close to the normal level.
Yang Kuifu, vice-president of the China Family Planning Association, suggested that more legislation should be drafted to prohibit gender screening and selective abortions. Harsh punishment should be imposed on those who profit from these illegal activities.
At the same time, education of citizens should be enhanced to promote new concepts about marriage, family and children.
(China Daily March 19, 2004)