Imbalance in boy/girl ratios may result in millions of young Chinese men remaining bachelors, while girl figure catches up

Oh Boy, Where Are the Girls?


It doesn’t matter that China is planning to train female astronauts, or that gender equality is now an integral part of the country’s human rights focus—when it comes to the crunch, young couples in China’s countryside would still tell you, “We want a boy!” when asked of their child gender preference when starting a family.

“Can a girl keep watch in the melon field at night?” asked a melon farmer in reply to the question, “why do you want a boy?” He was answering an official birth-control survey carried out last year in central China’s Anhui Province. “A boy is worth three girls,” joked another farmer.

Though the birthrate in China dropped from 33.43 per thousand in 1970 to 14.03 per thousand in 2000, which led to over 300 million fewer births, thanks to birth-control policies over three decades, the “obsession with boys” still pervades in Chinese thinking, especially in the countryside, and that has spiraled out of control over recent years and resulted in alarmingly abnormal newborn gender ratios in the world’s most populous nation.

Li Weixiong, Vice Chairman of the Population, Resources and Environment Sub-Committee of the 10th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), warned at the annual CPPCC session in early March that some 30-40 million Chinese men of marrying age might have to remain single by 2020, if the climbing abnormal newborn gender ratio is not held in check.

According to the fifth national census in 2000, China’s newborn girl/boy ratio rose from 100:108 in 1982 to 100:117 in 2000, whereas the normal proportion should be 100:104-107.

“This is by no means a sensational prediction,” said Li. “The great disparities between male and female newborns mean a serious threat to building a moderately prosperous society.”

The disproportion of male to female has become more and more serious, especially in the rural areas, Li said in a keynote speech.

According to Qin Dewen, a CPPCC National Committee member from Anhui Province who came up with a proposal analyzing the country’s gender imbalance, the newborn gender ratio of the province stood at 100:111.97 in 1990, which rose to 100:116.14 in 1995 and rocketed to 100:129 in 2000.

In west China’s Shaanxi Province, the newborn gender ratio of the second child over recent years topped 100:253.5 in a county, which would result in almost 20,000 bachelors in the county 20 years from now, if the situation is allowed to continue unchecked.

Li Weixiong said such serious gender disproportion poses a major threat to the healthy, harmonious and sustainable growth of the nation’s population and could trigger such crimes and social problems as mercenary marriages, abduction of women and prostitution.

Mentalities Deep-Rooted

The centuries-old family tradition of preferring a son to a daughter is the top reason behind the climbing newborn gender imbalance. According to a special survey carried out in 2003, of Anhui Province’s 580 married women of childbearing age, 56.8 percent of those desiring to have a boy are doing so of their own volition, and 62.3 percent are doing so to satisfy their parents.

Social, environmental and economic conditions can also not be ignored. Chinese parents believe a son could bring more income and will be a better provider in their senior years. This way of thinking is partly due to a lack of a social security system. About 33 percent and 35 percent of respondents said they want a boy to provide more labor and be the breadwinner. Some 36.7 percent of respondents agree that having a boy could raise their family status and earn respect from other people.

The survey also confirms that girls-only families find more difficulties in life. Moreover, the meager reward to those families, stipulated by the government, are inadequate. Only 60-70 percent of medical checks and contraception operations are free of charge, and a mere 6.9 percent of money for health care is cashed in. With no incentive, those families have no choice but to try by all means to have a boy.

Technology Misused

Hi-tech can be the source of trouble if misused, said Li, pointing to the practice of women having CT-gender screenings of their embryos—so couples can select boys during the pregnancy rather than girls—is out of control in some areas of China.

In the 1980s, the main methods for gender selection in rural areas were dumping or drowning baby girls. Nowadays, however, CT-gender screenings and induced abortions are becoming more and more popular. Though China has maternal, child-care and family planning laws that forbid embryo gender screening, enforcement is slack, said Li.

Surveys show that CT-gender screenings have become half-open and door-to-door services in the countryside, with fees dropping from 200 yuan ($24.15) to 15 yuan ($1.81). Sampled examinations in Anhui in 2002 indicated that unborn fetuses accounted for 5.29 percent of the total newborns, most of them having died of induced abortion just because of gender selection.

More Care for Girls

Thanks to the tight reins on population growth over more than three decades, China has become one of the world’s low birth-rate nations. But departments at all levels should now pay more attention to maintaining the population composition, said Qin Dewen.

Experts say stricter enforcement of the ban against gender selection should be undertaken, with those who practice it punished. They called for departments of health, public security and justice to join hands in the campaign, and also urged the elimination of gender discrimination against girls beginning with pregnancy and for society to show more care toward girls.

According to Qin, Huaiyuan County of Anhui Province has launched a “care for girls” campaign to promote the idea of gender equality and improve the living standards of girls-only families. Chaohu City of the province has used money from the international foundation—Ford Foundation —to provide legal aid and job opportunities to girls-only families. The newborn gender ratio there has approached the normal standard in three years.

The Chinese Government has set a timetable for the year 2010 to bring the gender ratio among newborn babies back to normal and officials said a new concept toward marriage and reproduction would take shape by then. If not, the only good news might be that in the foreseeable future, young women in China can bide their time in making marital decisions. They could be very selective, picking from the very best the male gene pool has to offer.