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China Starts to Give Girls Their Due
Decades of population controls and a societal preference for males have led to a 'boy glut.' The government is trying to reverse the imbalance.
By Jim Yardley in Anxi, China

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For farming families in the lush mountains of coastal Fujian Province, the most popular crop is oolong tea and the favorite source of labor is sons. The leafy bushes of tea fill the hillsides the same way young boys fill the village streets. But where are the girls?

There is such a glut of boys in Fujian Province—roughly 134 are born for every 100 girls—that the imbalance has forced an unlikely response from the Chinese government. To persuade more families to have girls, it has decided in some cases to reward families that already have daughters.

Government policy and ancient custom are often blamed for what has become a nationwide problem: In January, China announced that the gender ratio for the country as a whole had reached 119 boys for every 100 girls. The worldwide average is about 105 boys for every 100 girls. China's so-called one-child policy, which officially limits the size of families, has sharply slowed China's population growth, but critics say it is a major reason many families now use prenatal scans and selective abortions to make certain that their child is a boy.

Most Chinese parents, particularly in rural areas, prefer sons. Li Shengming, a member of the Planning Commission in Anxi in southeastern China, says this preference dates back centuries: Farm families want sons for their labor, while all parents, worried about their old age, know that Chinese tradition holds that a son must care for his parents. A daughter, on the other hand, marries into her husband's family.

'MISSING' GIRLS

In the countryside, where there is no real social safety net, a son is considered the equivalent of a pension. "It used to be that if you only had girls, you were looked down upon," Li says.

Today, China, with 1.3 billion people, has one of the world's worst cases of "missing" girls. Until recently, the government largely ignored or denied the problem. Last March, President Hu Jintao declared it must be solved by 2010.

The State Council, China's cabinet, has appointed a research group to examine issues like imbalance between the sexes, dropping fertility rates, and ways to prepare for China's rapidly aging population. It may also address whether China should move to a nationwide two-child policy. (Today, rural families are often allowed to have a second child if their first is a girl.)

Experts debate to what extent China's one-child rule should be blamed for its missing girls, noting that the problem predates the policy.

40 MILLION BACHELORS?

Other Asian countries without such policies, like India and South Korea, also have lopsided birth rates. But statistics show that China's imbalance has widened since government- imposed population controls began in the 1970s. Demographers predict that in a few decades China could have 40 million bachelors unable to find mates.

On a recent afternoon in Anxi, hundreds of students in the dirt courtyard of Lanxi Middle School rehearsed a parade. The school goes through 12th grade, and 60 percent of students in the higher grades are male. The marchers, mostly boys, waved flags and kicked dust in the air beside a billboard promoting the latest propaganda campaign: Respect Girls.

Lanxi Middle School is participating in a Care for Girls pilot program. Female students from poor families are getting free tuition, as are students from families with two girls. The principal, Hu Hongbin, says that young women are now eligible for college scholarships and that the number of recent female graduates attending college jumped to 271 in 2004 from 149 in 2003.

Lin Lingling, 18, a senior who has hopes for college, is one of the stars of the program. "They say boys are good at logical things, so when they enter into high school, they say some of them are a lot better," says Lin. "But we are the same."

In addition, China is testing a program in which about 300,000 rural elderly people are receiving annual pensions of $180 (a good amount in the countryside) if they had only one child or if they had daughters. Li says the payments are intended to give monetary value to girls. Even so, old attitudes die hard. Officials used the recent birth of the country's 1.3 billionth citizen as a propaganda vehicle to laud government efforts to slow population growth. The eight-pound baby, born in January, was a boy. His first bath was nationally televised.

Asked about the honor, Zhang Tong, the father, could have been describing the different parental attitudes toward sons and daughters. "I am the happiest guy in the world," Zhang told the state news media, "and my boy will be blessed all his life."