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December 9, 2010

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Oh, please. Give us a baby boy

CONFUCIUS said the worst filial impiety was failing to produce a male heir, and that notion persists in some areas. Family planners are trying to rebalance China's skewed sex ratio. Cheng Yunjie and Yu Xiaojie report.

Many Chinese still want boy babies, not girls, and challenging that age-old male preference remains a daunting task in some areas - and the situation is worsened by sex-selective abortions.

Lin Likang is preparing for a tough battle to rebalance the gender ratio of newborns in an area of Zhejiang Province that has one of China's most distorted ratios.

"Almost three decades after the government began preaching that girls are equal to boys, some parents still prefer sons, so they turn to illegal gender tests to detect and kill female fetuses," says Lin.

Lin is deputy head of the Human Resources and Family Planning Department of Jiaojiang District, Taizhou City. He works in a city that - along with Zhejiang's Wenzhou and Jinhua cities - has a growing imbalance in the sex ratio at birth. The area is one of China's wealthiest, known for its wealthy entrepreneurs.

The preference for boys is linked with the Confucian belief that male heirs are necessary to carry on the family name and care for family spirits. Confucius once said, "there are three ways of being disloyal to your ancestors. Not carrying on the family name is the worst."

That perception is still powerful.

The worldwide male-to-female ratio at birth is estimated at 105-107:100.

On average, China's sex ratio among newborns ranges from 103:100 to 107:100, but the figure in Taizhou has hovered around 112:100 since 2006. Last year, it rose to 118:100.

It's bad in Shanghai, too, though the boy-heavy gender imbalance continued to decline last year, the second consecutive drop since 2000. But it's still way out of kilter.

Last year, Shanghai's gender ratio was 113.7 boys for every 100 girls among permanent registered residents and migrants living in the city for more than six months.

The Shanghai Population and Family Planning Commission, which reported the statistics, also said the ratio in 2008 was 114.8 boys to 100 girls.

People with registered residency, the most stable population, kept a better gender ratio: 105.7 boys to 100 girls last year, 0.8 points lower than in 2008.

Births among migrants are more difficult to regulate in terms of gender ratio, since most migrants are from rural areas and more likely to follow traditional Chinese thinking that values boys more than girls.

However, the Shanghai migrants' rate also fell 1 point, to 120.9 boys to every 100 girls - still way out of whack.

"The bigger the gap between male and female newborns, the worse the selective abortions of female fetuses," says Taizhou's top family planner Lin.

To remedy the situation, Lin says, China must enact more powerful laws to severely punish those engaged in underground gender-testing through widely available ultrasound equipment.

Ultrasound equipment use for gender testing is banned, except for medical purposes, under China's law on family planning and maternal and infant health. Subsequent abortions of female fetuses is also banned.

Since the late 1970s, China's policies essentially restricted each family to one child to prevent explosive population growth. Most Chinese, except ethnic minorities and those otherwise qualified to have a second child (such as those who have a severely disabled child), have only one chance to have a son. The policy is changing and today pilot projects are underway, allowing a second child for a couple in which the husband or wife is a single child.

The combination of policy and preference has spawned an underground gender testing and abortion industry, which further unbalances China's already skewed gender ratio.

No deterrent

On November 22 a campaign was launched against gender testing and other illegal medical practices by Zhejiang's provincial bureaus of public security, health and human resources, and family planning.

It was prompted by the convictions of five people in a gang that carried out 442 illegal fetal gender tests from February 20 to April 28, including 250 pregnant women from Taizhou.

Headed by Wang Duo, 42, and his wife Liu Huaxia, 43, both from Yishang County of Anhui Province, none of the gang had medical licenses. They rented a van to offer mobile ultrasonic scans and induced abortions in a rented apartment.

Based in Ningbo City, the gang was efficiently organized, with each member responsible for specific duties, including business development, medicine and equipment, vehicle escorts, testing and liaison.

The couple were previously convicted and jailed, for one year each, for illegal medical practice. But after their release in 2006, they quickly returned to their old trade under false names.

On October 25, in a public trial, the two were sentenced to jail terms of two and a half years each; the other three members of the gang received sentences ranging from six months to two and a half years.

Two and a half years in jail is the maximum punishment in Zhejiang for carrying out illegal gender testing, said Xie Leiguang, chief of the Politics and Law Department of Zhejiang Family Planning Bureau. A provincial regulation issued in 2004 outlawed the practice and established penalties.

"Elsewhere in China, it's much more difficult to find a legal basis to impose a punishment," says Xie.

Provincial statistics show that from 2006 to 2009, 163 cases of illegal gender testing were handled by authorities. In this year alone, around 100 cases have been cracked in Cangnan and Pujiang counties.

Police say most of the perpetrators are unlicensed, but it is very difficult to obtain evidence against them as couples willingly seek their help and keep tight-lipped about their activities. Moreover, the perpetrators are mobile, which means inter-regional cooperation is essential, but jurisdiction conflicts stand in the way.

The legal way

For those who want to have boy babies the legal and more scientific way, there are practices that can increase the odds of having a male, according to Dr Li Yuxing from Shanghai's Cheng Zhitang Clinic.

"Lots of young couples are actually doing this when they decide to have a baby," Dr Li says.

Males have one Y and one X chromosome; females have two X chromosomes. Some sperm carry X and others carry Y chromosomes. An alkaline environment is said to be friendlier to Y sperm; X sperm are much more active in an acid environment. Adjustment in diet can help.

"Many couples come asking for advice and some search the Internet for 'secret' recipes," Li says. "Many want boys."

The doctor said that the odds for a male increase when the man eats more acidic foods and while the woman eats more alkaline foods.

If women eat more acidic foods and men eat more alkaline foods, the odds of having a girl are increased, he said.

Alkaline foods include fresh vegetables, potatoes, kelp, bananas, beans, and tea; acid foods include dairy products, eggs, fish, meat, tomatoes, grapefruit and apples.

Parents who have more than the legally allowed number of children must pay social maintenance fees - fines imposed by provincial governments and based on average local living costs.

This has allowed the preference for male heirs to extend beyond the rural heartlands to China's new rich, particularly to private enterprise owners, who can pay the penalties.

"Compared with men, women are disadvantaged. No dad or mom wants their baby born into a subordinate position," says a jewelry shop owner surnamed Jin in Wenzhou. "Here in Zhejiang, it's true that many bosses want to have a male heir to inherit family business."

Zhejiang is a bellwether of China's private economy. Cities such as Yiwu, Wenzhou and Taizhou are among the country's largest small-commodity distribution centers and manufacturing centers for export commodities.

In richer counties within these cities, the birth imbalance is especially distorted among second or third children in a family. In Yueqing and Yiwu counties, the ratio is 147:100 among second children and 275:100 for third children.

"Among second children, we seldom see girls," says a villager in Yiwu.

Problems ahead

In the past five years, family planning authorities have investigated more than 20,000 cases of illegal pregnancy gender scans and abortions.

But generally, the greatest gender imbalances are reported in rural areas where residents harbor the traditional belief that boys carry the family bloodline and support their parents in old age.

According to the 2010 Social Development Blue Paper from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the gender ratio of Chinese aged below 19 is seriously imbalanced. By 2020, the number of Chinese men at marriageable age is projected to outnumber their female peers by 24 million.

While it may take time to put teeth into China's laws, some local governments are acting. In Sanmen, a county of Taizhou, the local government offers rewards of up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,510) for tip-offs about illegal gender scans and pregnancy terminations.

Some experts remain skeptical about improvement in the situation, saying that illegal gender testing should be outlawed nationally and made a crime under an amendment to the Criminal Law. They call for severe punishment.

(Cai Wenjun and Zhang Qian contributed to this article.)


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