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The Washington Post (U.S.), April 20, 2009

Abortions and Unmarriageable Men in China

Author: John Pomfret

Research published last week in the British Medical Journal has confirmed what Chinese demographers have believed for years. Chinese couples have been aborting female fetuses at an alarming rate. So much so that, according to the paper, "in 2005 males under the age of 20 exceeded females by more than 32 million" and that China will see "very high and steadily worsening sex ratios in the reproductive age group over the next two decades." In one year alone, 2005, more than one million more boys were born than girls.

Think of that. An army of 32 million essentially unmarriageable men. That's a recipe for serious social disorder. I wrote a long piece about this in the Post in 2001. This report adds detail and texture.

The study was conducted by three scientists, two from Zhejiang and one from Britain, highlights just one of China's major demographic headaches. (The other main one is the fact that China is aging faster than even many developed countries and is on target to become the first country that will grow old before it gets rich.)

The report is significant because it concludes that sex selective abortion, and not infanticide, accounts for almost all the missing girls. It's also important because it debunks the idea that China's gender imbalance is just on paper, or a product of the notion that couples with girls aren't registering their daughters with the state. The gender imbalance is real. Finally, it indicates that the problem -- first noted in the 1990s -- has gotten significantly worse. From 1985 to 1989, for example, there were 108 boys born for every 100 girls. (The worldwide norm is about 105 boys to every 100 girls.) By 2000 to 2004, it was 124 boys for every 100 girls, before dropping slightly in 2005 to 120 boys for every 100 girls.

Now why do Chinese couples abort their unborn daughters? The reason involves the intersection of new technology, policy and tradition. First the technology. Ultrasounds became available to Chinese couples in the 1980s; by the mid-1990s they were in all county hospitals and even in most township health centers. The government banned doctors from informing the parents about the gender of the fetus and outlawed sex-selective abortions; but in China lots can be accomplished with a little extra scratch.

The policy that pushed this change is China's one-child policy, which was instituted in the 1980s. In the cities, where the policy is strictest, the ratio of males to female births was 110 to 100 -- above the worldwide norm of 105 to 100. An indication, the report said, that even in China's most advanced places, girls were still valued less.

It's in China's countryside where the gender imbalance was most severe. And it's at its most severe when it involves second children. Now in the West, we think of the one-child policy as, well, a one-child policy. In reality, in many parts of China's countryside, it's a two-child policy. (Fact: Most Chinese kids have siblings. There are 300 million kids in China below the age 14, according to official Chinese statistics, only 60 million come from one-child families.) The reason is that in many rural areas if your first child is a daughter or a disabled child, the state gives you a second crack at having a healthy son. And many, many Chinese families are taking that opportunity. Nationwide among second children,146 boys were born for every 100 girls. In some provinces, like Anhui and Jiangsu, more than 190 boys were born for every 100 girls among second kids.

The reason why Chinese families in the countryside like boys is rooted in tradition. Women marry out of the family and take care of their in-laws. Men, however, are responsible for the well-being of their parents (at least theoretically). China has no social safety in rural areas; so everybody wants a son.

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