One finding of China's fifth national census, conducted in 2000, has upset demographers. That is the imbalance in ratio between female and male newborns. At 100 girls to 117 boys on national average, the ratio is far beyond the normal ratio of 100 females to 104-107 males.
The gender ratio in the world's most populous country has risen from 100:108 in the 1982 census and 100:111 in 1990, observes Yu Xuejun, head of the policy and legislation department of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.
Southern China's Guangdong and Hainan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region now share the most marked imbalance in the country at 100 girls to over 130 boys.
You Yunzhong, who worked in the statistics section of the United Nations Population Fund for 26 years, seriously doubts the validity of the 100:117 ratio because "it looks unnaturally high," he says.
He questions the reliability of the data gathered based on incomplete birth registration records, especially taking into consideration the migrant population aged from 10 to 30. What's more, "people might have withheld records of the birth of a girl" so as to have an excuse to have another child, preferably a boy.
Citing media reports of girl-child trafficking and the fact most Chinese children adopted by foreigners are girls, he asks: "Would these children have been counted in the census?"
Now teaching at the Institute of Population Research at Peking University, You concludes there are too many artificial elements in the available data, making it "unreliable." He believes the gender ratio for Chinese babies is no more than 100:111, dismissing the 2000 census figure of 117 as "inaccurate."
But Yu, who formerly worked with the China Population Information and Research Centre, believes the gender imbalance is not only greater, but also has spread to more areas from some eastern coastal provinces like Zhejiang, where gender imbalance has traditionally been witnessed.
In addition, he notes a higher gender ratio is found among second or more births. As the 2000 census shows, the ratio among first-born children is 100:107.1, which is about normal. But among children born second, the ratio jumped to 100:151.9, and to a staggering 100:159.4 for the third-born.
Yu's study indicates that a higher imbalance has been witnessed in cities and small towns, but the number of births in those locales cannot match that in rural areas.
Reasons behind the high ratio
While Yu says more studies are needed to find the real cause of the change in gender ratio, which he describes as "a complicated process," he believes the traditional male preference has played a role in the disparity. "In the countryside," he says, "boys are preferred because they are better labour than girls and labour is always the top priority."
Lack of an effective social security system is another contributing factor. Only one-tenth of farmers in China are covered by social security, he points out. With no social security system to rely on, they turn to giving birth to sons to support them when they are old.
"The nuclear family structure in the wake of a rapid fertility decline coupled with a strong son preference naturally led to prenatal sex selection of children when the means to predetermine the sex of an unborn child, such as ultrasonic scanning technology, made its appearance," says Yu Xuejun.
From the individual perspective, says You Yunzhong, sex selection is something reasonable.
"When fewer children for each couple has become a social trend, people like to make their choices. This is not unique to the Chinese mainland. In India, Korea and Taiwan where family planning policies are not present, the sex imbalance for newborns is also quite high."
However, if the high-ratio trend goes on for some time, it will affect population and social development.
"If such trends continue, there is no doubt problems pertaining to marriages, birth and marriage rights will crop up, which may even jeopardize social stability," Yu warns.
When the Report on China's Millennium Development Goals assessed by the United Nations was released in March, UN resident co-ordinator Khalid Malik voiced similar concerns.
"The shortage of women will have enormous implications on China's social, economic and development future," said Malik.
"In the next decade, we could have as many as 60 million missing women. People are exercising their preferences, but the consequences for society are huge. The skewed ratio of men to women will have an impact on the sex industry and human trafficking as well."
Governments take action
Prenatal sexual predetermination is illegal in China as stipulated in the Maternal and Child Healthcare Law, adopted in 1994, and the Population and Family Planning Law, put in force in 2002. But increased access to technologies makes it difficult to control illegal private consultations operated purely for economic gain.
The Chinese Government has taken note of the phenomenon and set the goal of lowering the gender ratio among newborns to the normal level by 2010.
To achieve that goal, departments of health, public security and justice nationwide have joined forces to severely punish those who use ultrasonic scanning to do prenatal sex selection and other misdeeds involving selective abortion.
China has launched several programmes, including "Care for Girls" in many rural and underdeveloped areas, to tackle sex imbalance among newborn babies by advocating gender equality.
A project started in 2000 by the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development and the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC) rewards those farming families who choose not to have a second or third child with funding of 3,000 yuan to 5,000 yuan (US$361-602) for income-generating businesses.
"In the southern mountainous region of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region where per capita annual income for farmers is about 500 yuan (US$60), such a premium is appealing, and it works much better than punitive measures," says Yu.
The NPFPC also issued a ruling along with the Ministry of Finance to provide a monthly subsidy of no less than 50 yuan (US$6) for couples with a single child or two girls when the parents turn 60. In wealthier places such as South China's Guangdong, the subsidy could be much higher.
"This is to ensure fair treatment of those who abide by the country's family planning policy. It is to a certain extent an informal social security system in rural China," Yu comments.
All these measures are aimed at improving the living standards of one-child and girls-only families and to create a better social environment for girls. And the results are encouraging.
In the eight counties involved in the reward project in Ningxia, the number of farmers who chose to have fewer children in line with government policy grew by 4 percentage points between 2002 to last year.
In Beijing, where the gender ratio for newborns was 100:111 in 2000, preference for boys has come down as indicated by a survey this year.
The survey, conducted by Beijing Institute of Population Research on 1,206 urban and rural residents, found that 60 per cent of respondents had no particular preference for boys or girls. And interviewees claiming to prefer girls outnumbered those who preferred boys.
In addition, many couples who are both single children and therefore eligible to have two children of their own, opted to have only one child.
"Placed against the historic background, the high incidence of sex disparity in China would be something to pass. With the improvement in social security as well as people's living standards, it will gradually come down," Yu predicts.
However, he notes that it takes all sectors to work towards the goal, to ensure the implementation of existing laws and policies punishing perpetrators in sex selection, and dealing with inequality in the workplace and other spheres.
"And that cannot be achieved overnight," he says. "We still have a long way to go."
(China Daily May 26, 2004)