Walk down the streets of Shanghai or Suzhou and it's all too obvious: For every girl child you see, there are six or seven boys. Pick up an English language newspaper and it's there: "Sex-ratio imbalance 'a danger' ". Examine statistics and the problem is clear. China is facing a demographic disaster, with wide-ranging social and economic implications.
In 2005, the gender ratio for newborns in China was 118 boys for every 100 girls as compared to the year 2000 when it was 110: 100. In some regions, the disparity has now reached 130 boys for every 100 girls. Some experts call this growing imbalance a hidden danger for society that will affect social stability.
Son preference, a phenomenon in many countries and cultures, is pronounced in China. Traditionally, sons have been seen as insurance against poverty and neglect while also ensuring continuity of lineage and security for ageing parents. The "Book of Songs" (1,000 - 700 BC) expresses this tradition clearly: "When a son is born, let him sleep on the bed, clothe him with fine clothes, and give him jade to play... When a daughter is born, let her sleep on the ground, wrap her in common wrappings, and give broken tiles to play..."
But this age-old bias toward boys, in addition to China's one-child policy promulgated in 1980, has produced what Gu Baochang, a Chinese expert in family planning, has described as "the largest, the highest, and the longest" gender imbalance in the world. Others have called the looming demographic disaster "gendercide." United Nations officials have warned that by 2014 there will be approximately 40 to 60 million "missing women" in China, a statistic that has vast implications for the prostitution industry and the problem of human trafficking.
Female infanticide; draconian measures to ensure the one-child policy, prominent in Mao's time - from 1945 to 1976; and cheap ultrasound facilities leading to abortion of female fetuses have contributed to the dangerous gender imbalance. According to a study conducted in 2002, in one southern Chinese village, prenatal sex selection was the leading cause of abortions among more than 300 women.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation has reported that up to 750,000 female fetuses were aborted in 1999 alone in China. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Science have noted that only seven of China's 29 provinces are within the world's average sex ratio and it cites eight "disaster provinces" where there are 26 to 38 per cent more boys than girls.
Indicators of problems that could lie ahead include an increase in human trafficking as men attempt to buy wives; and an increase in violent crimes. In the two-year period between 2001 and 2003, Chinese police released more than 42,000 kidnapped women and children. Western scholars have argued that some men try to improve their situation through criminal behavior. Authors Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer refer to this phenomenon in their book, 'Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population' (2004), as a "strategy of coalitional aggression". Their theory seems to be supported by China's growing crime rate.
Chinese authorities, increasingly alarmed by these implications, have vowed to take tough measures to reduce the number of sex-selective abortions, which are actually forbidden by law. In addition, they have promised to better protect baby girls, issuing strong warnings about the legal repercussions of abandoning, injuring or killing female infants. Centers offering ultrasound facilities will be more closely supervised.
Further, a Care for Girls campaign was launched in 2000 by the government of China in 24 counties where this problem is quite marked. Aimed at encouraging the birth of girls to promote equality between the genders, it offers monetary incentives to girl-only families. The incentives include preferential loans to help with agricultural production or an annual allowance of US $75 for families without sons - if the parents are over 60 years. Of course, critics argue that the campaign is too male-centered rather than designed to foster respect for females.
"The government is making some efforts," says Zhang Jing, a Beijing-based travel agent and the mother of a three-year-old daughter. "But it is not enough and is not very effective. The government has too many other priorities." And, she adds, there are vast differences between urban and rural people in China. With 80 per cent of China's population living in rural areas and being poorly educated, the problem is even more serious.
Her view is corroborated by Ling Jia, a single professional woman from Hunan province. "We are all very aware of this problem. My own grandmother treated me differently than she did her grandsons. And, in rural areas, the traditional idea that only males can support their elders is deeply ingrained so they find ways to ignore government strategies," she says.
Despite the challenges of overcoming tradition, improving education, and creating social change, experts agree that the problem must be addressed. In October 2002, Tian Xueyuan, then vice-president of the Chinese Population Association, told the 'Shanghai Star': "If the abnormal sex ratio at birth continues to increase, Chinese males will have to fight to find a wife [soon]. ... The marriage crisis will have a great impact on family structures, on the way we provide for the aged, on social ethics and the economy. Males will have more difficulties finding employment and illegal phenomena, such as kidnapping women, could become more serious."
"This is obviously not a simple problem," says Jing. "It is related to Chinese culture, tradition and economic development in different regions. So it is a good idea to analyze the problem in a profound way."