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China's gender imbalance concerns reborn

China's gender imbalance issue is back in the spotlight, after pregnant villagers in east China were alleged to be illegally determining the sex of their unborn children.

Lian Fang, a political advisor in Shandong Province, said this week that doctors in Shandong's rural areas have been surreptitiously purchasing B ultrasound machines and hiding them in villagers' back rooms.

Once the equipment is used to ascertain fetal gender, unborn boys are usually kept while unborn girls are typically aborted, Lian said at Shandong's "two sessions": the annual meetings of the province's legislature and provincial political advisory body.

Preference for boys is not uncommon in China, particularly in the countryside, where thousands of years of feudal values are still casting a shadow over people's attitudes.

China launched its one-child policy in the 1970s to curb soaring population growth. Many couples choose boys over girls in the belief that males could better support their families as well as carry on the family line and inherit property, as is required in feudal values.

And there seems to be little change in the mindset, even in the modern era. In Shandong, for instance, the sex ratio among newborns in 2013 was 116.6 to 100. This made 2013 the fourth consecutive year in which the ratio had narrowed in Shandong, but it is still "relatively high," Lian said at the two sessions, which will run until Sunday.

Guo Shuqing, the provincial governor, said on Tuesday that the male to female proportion had exceeded 120 to 100 in some parts of Shandong.

There has been heated discussion about the problem at the meetings, with political advisors seeking a solution.

Local authorities are apparently taking action, with an official plan to ease the quandary already included in Shandong's 2015 government work report.

Shandong's situation, however, only forms part of a bigger national problem.

Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics show that, as of the end of 2014, the Chinese mainland held 33.76 million more males than females, with the sex ratio standing at 115.88 to 100. Though that is a six-year decrease, it still stands high above the international standard, making China one of the world's most imbalanced countries in terms of sex structure.

The gender imbalance has induced issues including marriage difficulties and human trafficking. There is also the problem of age differences among spouses, which increases the rate of infertility and defects among newborns, Lian, who doubles as an gynecologist, told Xinhua.

"I have treated many infertile girls who went through multiple abortions just to get a boy," she said.

Gao Liping, a demography expert with the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences, said the advancement of technology has given full play to problematic traditional values.

"B ultrasound and DNA detection these days have provided the possibility of determining fetal sex, which directly contributes to China's sex imbalance," Gao said.

Agencies that help with fetal gender determination overseas have also exacerbated the problem.

In a statement last week, the National Health and Family Planning Commission highlighted agencies collecting pregnant women's blood and sending it overseas to determine the gender of the baby. These agents advertise on the Internet and will go to customers' homes or elsewhere to draw blood.

Fetal gender determination is banned in China, except in cases of "medical necessity," but the law does not ban abortions.

The commission said it would crack down on online advertisements for overseas fetal sex determination and ban search engines from linking to websites containing such ads. Illegal agencies on this "underground industrial chain" will be severely punished.

The commission also warned medical staff, reiterating a ban on carrying, mailing or transporting blood samples abroad.

Meanwhile, experts like Lu Jiehua, a sociology professor with Peking University, suggest tougher legal measures to tackle the issue. Lu said that supervision should be ramped up of medical staff as well as of pregnant women.

Lian said that China should also step up efforts to raise women's status in society by criminalizing sexual discrimination. She believes special government agencies should be set up to promote male-female equality.


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