China Faces Future as Land of Boys

Article excerpt

The city tabloids loved it when Chinese pop singer Na Ying got pregnant this spring. But the real buzz came once it leaked that Ms. Na, who lives with a famous former soccer player, took an ultrasound exam and let on that she is expecting a boy.

Gossip columns ran side by side with official editorials stating that Ms. Na's ultrasound was illegal - even if done only for curiosity.

Na's test came amid new efforts in China, including a ban on ultrasound tests, to reduce the country's increasing gender imbalance. The "one child" policy and an old cultural preference for male heirs have encouraged use of ultrasounds to identify and abort female fetuses.

In the past two decades in China, female births have declined markedly compared with male births. The official figure - which some say is slightly low - is 117 boys for every 100 girls, based on a 2000 census. In ordinary populations, the split is closer to 104 boys for every 100 girls. Skewed sex ratios are also appearing elsewhere in Asia, particularly India, where the ratio in the state of Punjab is 126 to 100. A tilt toward male births is also beginning to be 126 to 100. A tilt toward male births is also beginning to be seen in the Caucasus and parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe.

In the case of China, social scientists are talking about a future in which 15 percent of men won't have wives. According to Asia expert Nicholas Eberstadt, the trend, termed the "marriage squeeze," is an anthropological phenomenon partly due to China's "one child" policy that began in 1978 with the intent of slowing growth in the world's most populous country.

"The world has never before seen the likes of the bride shortage that will be unfolding in China in the decades ahead," writes Mr. Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent study, "Power and Population in Asia."

Chinese President Hu Jintao has earmarked the imbalance as something that needs to be adjusted in the next 10 years. The government has geared up an ambitious set of financial incentives. Ultrasound exams for non-medical purposes have been illegal since 1994, but only in recent months has there been a major crackdown on the tests, which contribute to what are known here as "selective abortions." The campaign includes an education initiative, "Care for Girls," to promote the value of both sexes.

Jing Lingli, a pregnant mother from Beijing who holds an American green card, visited a neighborhood clinic here last month, for example. She popped in for a brief checkup before going back to the United States. When she unwittingly asked the gender of the child, the answer came back, "Sorry, we can't tell you."

Boy bias seen less in cities

If there is an O'Henry twist to pop singer Na's story, it is that she and her boyfriend let slip that they prefer - a girl baby. That preference is rapidly becoming less unusual in large cities where education levels are higher. Yet ordinary Chinese also take another lesson from the Na brouhaha: how easy it is to obtain an illegal ultrasound test. …