MILLIONS of baby girls are believed to have been quietly put to death in China as a result of its rigid "one-child" policy of population control. In male- dominated rural areas, the pressure to have a son is so strong that girls often disappear shortly after birth, giving parents another chance to ensure their only child is a boy.
Now peasant tradition has found a modern reinforcement - pre-natal scanning. In one rural township where parents have been able to discover the sex of their children in the womb, more than three boys are being born for every two girls. The Communist Party committee in Zaozhuang, in the northern province of Shandong, has warned that officials who have used scanning to detect and abort female babies will be stripped of their posts and membership.
Obtaining evidence of this secret slaughter has never been easy, except for the growing disparity in population statistics. Normally 105 or 106 girls are born for every 100 boys, but the past three censuses in China have recorded more than 110 boys aged 12 months or less for every 100 girls. According to the semi-official China News Service, the gap is far wider in rural areas: newborn boys outnumber girls by an average 144.6 to 100. In Zaozhuang the ratio is 163.8 to 100, an imbalance the agency says is being blamed on pre-natal scanning.
The problem is by no means unique to China. Last week Punjab, where there are only 820 women to every 1,000 men, became the second Indian state after Maharashtra to ban pre- natal sex determination tests, following large-scale abortions of female foetuses. Doctors who abort girls after a test face up to three years in jail under the new law. Britain has no compulsory national guidelines, although the General Medical Council warns that it is unethical to perform abortions on sex grounds except in the case of genetic disorders which are passed on to the next generation only by one sex.
In China, the combined effects of two vast exercises in social engineering are proving lethal to girls. The one-child policy is brutal enough - transgression of it can result in houses being pulled down, peasants being fined a year's wages and heavily pregnant women dragged from their homes at night to be bullied into immediate abortions. Human rights groups say it is also being used to prevent ethnic minorities, who previously had fallen outside its net, becoming a larger proportion of the population.
In Tibet, it is feared that ruthless birth control and the influx of Chinese settlers are making Tibetans a minority within their own borders. But China's rulers are trying to improve the quality of the population as well as limiting the quantity. Theories of eugenics from the 1930s and 1940s, discredited elsewhere, are current: "Apart from failing to understand the general moral implications of eugenics policies, they seem unaware that scientifically they don't work," said Frank Dikotter of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "You can't improve quality by eliminating so-called `bad strains'. …