by Antoaneta Bezlova
(IPS) BEIJING -- Afraid that a huge shortfall in the female population could cause social strife and affect the 'quality' of the race, China has decided to make sex-selective abortions a criminal offense.
Such abortions are already banned but earlier regulations have been easily flouted or poorly enforced. By criminalizing the ban, government officials hope to correct an imbalance in the ratio of males to females that seems to be growing wider by the year since China introduced its one-child policy in the late 1970s.
This decision, however, has got some demographers up in arms, as they fear the forceful limitation of sex-selective abortions could lead to an increase in the number of baby girls abandoned or seriously neglected after birth.
They also point out that those who choose to abort their babies -- poor peasants and migrant workers, are among the most underprivileged social groups and the criminalization of the ban could marginalize them even further.
"There are complex social reasons for the sex ratio to be seriously out of skew," says Prof Li Zhu from the Beijing University Medical School. "One cannot simply use the law to resolve it."
According to Prof Mo Jihuang from the Legal Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, criminal punishments should be only one of the ways to tackle the problem of sex-selective abortions.
"The main things to be tackled though, are our weak social security system and conservative parental attitudes," Mo told the weekly 'Southern Weekend.'
Traditionally, Chinese parents, especially in rural areas, prefer to have sons. Brought up in a society that upholds the Confucian values of being filial, sons are those who look after their parents in old age. They carry the family line, they till the land or in the present mobile society, remit money back from the cities to support their parents.
Daughters, by contrast, are married off to their husbands' families. They are looked down upon and discriminated against. Cases of female infanticide and neglect existed long before China began to implement its restrictions on family fertility.
Yet in recent years experts have begun to suggest that very young Chinese female children may have borne the brunt of the country's one-child policy, which leaders here credit for preventing the addition of 300 million people to China's population of 1.3 billion.
Since the policy was implemented in late 1970s, a huge shortfall in females has occurred. A normal sex ratio at birth should be about 105 male babies per 100 female babies. In China, however, about 119 male babies are born for every 100 female ones.
Rural China has what demographers call the most extreme "missing young females" situation -- though urban areas are almost the same. Tellingly, the dearth of young females exists not only in remote and economically backward areas but also in the cities.
On the tropical island of Hainan in Southern China where state investment has led to a dramatic improvement in living standards, the ratio is 136 males to 100 females.
The last national census in 2000 took both family planning officials and demographers by surprise. It revealed there were 20 percent more males than females below the age of five.
Demographic evidence suggests that most of the young females are missing because of late term abortions. There are around seven million abortions a year in China and a report by the International Planned Parenthood Federation indicates that more than 70 percent of the fetuses aborted are females.
In many other cases, the "missing young female children" may have been killed or just simply died because of neglect and mistreatment in the early years after birth. In the world as a whole, females normally live longer than males. But in China, according to the United Nations Population Fund, very young female children below the age of three are dying off faster than their male counterparts.
There is also a significant number of female children being abandoned after birth. Chinese orphanages are almost entirely full of them.
Nonetheless, the bulk of foreign adoptions are of Chinese female children.
Until a few months ago the Chinese government quashed all discussion of the issue of the "missing young females," fearing open debate could touch off protests about human rights abuses stemming from Beijing's one-child policy.
But in March last year, President and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao acknowledged the problem and said the sex ratio imbalance will cause social problems if it persists over time. Chinese family planning officials were given the task to correct the imbalance by 2010.
For the first time, Chinese leaders invited some 300 demographers and other experts to debate the one-child policy and submit suggestions on what should be done to correct the abnormalities caused by its implementation.
The dearth of young females is just one of the problems China is grappling with. The country's success in bringing down birth rates has also aggravated the nation's ageing population problem.
Official figures show that 10 percent of China's population, or 132 million people, are above the age of 65. In 15 years, China's elderly will make up a quarter of the world's aged population, according to the United Nation's Second World Assembly on Ageing.
"All these distortions are affecting the competitiveness of our country," says Yang Zhida, one of the experts invited to examine possible changes to the policy. "If parents only have one child to continue their family line, many will back off from high-risk professions like the army and police."
Experts fear, too, that if as many as 30 to 40 million men cannot marry in the future, this could become a breeding ground for violence and crime. "The lack of women could breed violent behavior because there is no sexual outlet for them," says Yang. "None of these are beneficial to social stability."
According to foreign observers here, the majority of Chinese demographers are privately urging the Communist Party leadership to drop or significantly relax the one-child policy. They point out that many provinces already allow rural couples to have two children if the first one is a girl. Also, they stress, urban couples should be allowed to have children if they choose to do so.
The present trendy choice of urban couples choosing not to have any children is already beginning to take a toll on population growth in metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai.
If the migrant population in these cities is excluded, real population growth rate is actually minus.
Says demographer Yang: "Relaxation of the policy is the way to go forward. Only when the policy is relaxed, we can hope to correct the sex imbalance and stem the ageing problem by adding some newborn babies. We cannot afford to wait until our population growth is zero in order to act."
But a few point out that the task of undoing China's one-child policy won't be that simple.
"The results of the examination are still being compiled but I think they are going to continue with the one-child policy. It is too difficult to stop it now," says a senior Western adviser to the Chinese government.
"There is a fear that if they drop the policy, people might all of a sudden start having a lot more babies and the population will rebound."
February 3, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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