Growing concern over China 's 'missing millions'

Posted: 7 September 2004

This website was among the first to highlight the problem of 'missing girls' in China. Now the Chinese authorities are stepping up their efforts to combat the continuing sex imbalance in the newborn, which could have severe social and economic implications for China's future. Ma Guihua reports from Beijing.

The female to male sex ratio in China, according to the fifth national census conducted in the year 2000, has caused much discomfiture among demographers in the country. Reactions veer from discrediting the report to strong condemnation of illegal sex determination tests that allow parents to selectively abort the female foetus. Among the newborns, for every 100 girls in China, there are 117 baby boys; a high figure in a country where the traditional balance has been about 104 to 107 boys per 100 girls.

The sex ratio in China, the world's most populous country, was 100:108 (girls:boys) in the 1982 census to 100:111 in the following one in 1990, observes Dr Yu Xuejun, head of the policy and legislation department of the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC). There are regional imbalances as well. Southern China's Guangdong and Hainan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region register the sharpest disparity at 100:130.

You Yunzhong of the Institute of Population Research, Beijing University says the ratio appears to be "unnaturally" skewed. How reliable is data that is based on China's incomplete registration records, he asks. He also says, "people might have withheld the record of the birth of a girl child" so they can have another child, preferably a boy. (From an aggressive one-child family planning policy, China has moved, in a phased manner since 1995, to encouraging one-child or small families through incentives.)

You Yunzhong also cites media reports of girl-child trafficking and the fact that most Chinese children adopted by foreigners are girls. "Are these children accounted for?" he asks. He concludes that the data is "unreliable". His own estimate is that the sex ratio stands at about 100:111.

'Matter of concern'

Dr Yu of NPFPC disagrees. The sex ratio, he says, is definitely a matter of concern. Even more worrying is the fact that the imbalance has spread from some eastern coastal provinces like Zhejiang - where there has traditionally been an imbalance - to other areas. Besides, he says, there is an even greater imbalance among families that have two, three or more children. The 2000 census shows that the ratio among children of the first births is 100:107.1, which is about normal. But among children of second births, the ratio jumped to 100:151.9, and further to 100:159.4 among children of third births.

Dr Yu says that cities and small towns show greater imbalance in sex ratio, even if the total number of children (in a family) is lower than in the rural areas. "We need more studies to find out why there is a rise in the sex ratio. It is a complicated process. Of course, the traditional preference for boys plays a part as well. In the countryside, boys are preferred because they are better labour than girls." Also, "only one-tenth of farmers in China are covered by social security, so the rest hope to have sons who will support them when they are old," he says.

Dr Yu adds, "The nuclear family structure and the rapid decline in fertility combined with a strong son preference leads people to predetermine the sex of an unborn child through ultrasonic scanning." But You Yunzhong finds the trend defensible: "When the social trend favours fewer children, people want to make their choices. Even in countries with no family planning policies - India, Korea and China's Taiwan - the sex ratio (currently) is highly adverse."

Social impact

Dr Yu, though, has dire predictions for the future. Citing research based on the 2000 census - which showed males aged 0-9 outnumbered females by over 10 million - he notes that if the trend continues, there will be problems with birth and marriage rights that could even jeopardise social stability.

A comment by UN Resident Co-ordinator Khalid Malik in March 2004 reinforces this point: "The shortage of women will have enormous implications on China's social, economic and development future. 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."

At any rate, pre-natal sex determination tests are illegal as per China's Maternal and Childcare Law, 1994 and the Population and Family Planning Law, 2002. However, it is difficult to control private consultations that operate purely for economic gains.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has taken note of the phenomenon and set itself the task of lowering the sex ratio to normal levels by year 2010. To that end, the departments of health, public security and justice have joined hands to severely punish all those using ultrasonic scanning for pre-natal sex selection and any other offence involving selective abortion.

Girl child subsidy

The government has also launched several programmes - including 'Care for Girls', aimed at parents-to-be, in many rural and underdeveloped areas to correct the sex ratio by advocating gender equality. The Family Commission and the Ministry of Finance issued a ruling that couples with a single child or two girls in the countryside would get a 50 Yuan (US $1= 8.27 Yuan) subsidy every month after they turn 60. In other places where the cost of living is higher, such as south China's Guangdong, the subsidy could be much higher. "Incentives work better than punitive measures, especially in areas like the southern mountainous region, where per capita annual income for farmers is about 500 Yuan. It is a sort of informal social security system in rural China," says Dr Yu.

These programmes - intended to improve the living standards of one-child and girls-only families, and improve the social environment for girls - have yielded encouraging results. One project for instance, rewards farming families who choose not to have a second or third child, with 3,000 to 5,000 yuan, to help them start an income-generating business.

A survey conducted by the Institute of Population Research earlier in 2004 indicates that in Beijing - where the sex ratio for newborns was 100:111 in 2000 - the preference for boys has declined. Of 1,206 urban and rural residents, 60 per cent of those polled say they have no particular preference for boys or girls. More interviewees claimed to prefer girls over boys. In addition, many couples said that they would have only one child.

"With improvement in social security and living standards, the sex ratio will gradually normalise," predicts Dr Yu. And he says that all sectors will have to work towards the goal of ensuring equality for women and girls in every sphere of life.

"And that cannot be achieved overnight," says Dr Yu. "We still have a long way to go."

Ma Guihua is a freelance writer for the Women's Feature Service.

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