Ultrasound noted in China's gender gap

Abortions of baby girls identified during test affect census, official says

March 29, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - China's already worrisome gender gap worsened considerably over the past decade in part because of the increased use of ultrasound to identify female fetuses and abort them, a government official said yesterday.

Zhu Zhixin, the commissioner of the National Bureau of Statistics, said misuse of the diagnostic machines' findings had helped further skew the sex ratio, with men outnumbering women by approximately 41 million in this country of 1.26 billion.

"This is probably related to the fact that in some places people adopt selective abortions," Zhu said during a press conference announcing partial results from China's recent census. He added that local governments take the misuse of ultrasound very seriously and that using it to determine the sex of a child has been banned.

The practice of aborting baby girls discovered in ultrasound scans is well-known in China, and the government has been reasonably candid about it. The abortions have been driven by the spread of ultrasound technology, the traditional Chinese preference for boys and the nation's population control policy, which permits only one child per couple in cities and two in the countryside if the births are separated by at least three years.

Zhu did not quantify the impact of abortions performed after ultrasound discoveries on China's gender imbalance yesterday, but the statistics he gave showed a considerable change since 1990. Back then, there were 111 male babies born for every 100 female babies. By 1999, the number of male babies per 100 females had grown to 117. Zhu did not have the census figures for 2000.

In America, by contrast, the ratio was 105 male births per 100 female in 1997, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Zhu said that some of the growth in male birth figures in China was misleading because of families who hide daughters from the government so they can have a second child in violation of the nation's population policy.

If China's gender gap continues to grow, it could have calamitous consequences, adding to the nation's legions of lonely, frustrated bachelors. In some respects, its impact is already being felt.

The gender imbalance has contributed to the common practice of kidnapping rural women and selling them as brides to farmers. If the ratio continues to grow, it could further fuel the rapid spread of prostitution in the nation's cities.

In addition to the gender figures yesterday, the government released other statistics which illuminated some of the major changes transforming a nation that is home to more than one-sixth of the world's population.

According to the census, China's population is now about 1.265 billion people - an 11 percent increase since 1990. Many observers, though, believe the number is actually much higher, in part because families refuse to register additional children to avoid fines.

Zhu said population growth had slowed thanks to China's one-child policy. In 1970, the fertility rate was four births per mother. Last year, the number was down to 1.8.

The census also showed how hard it is for China's authoritarian government to keep track of an increasingly mobile society which enjoys more personal freedom now than at any other time in the nation's history.

China's public security bureau, which monitors the nation's once-strict residency registration system, counted just 1.224 billion people at the end of 1999 - 41 million less than the census found last year. The discrepancy suggested China's police had lost track of at least tens of millions of people.

In fact, they may have lost track of even more people as the authoritarian regime's tight controls on internal travel have crumbled during the past two decades of market economic reforms. Today, China has a "floating population" estimated at more than 100 million who have left the countryside to work for higher wages in cities.

Earlier this month, Chinese police spent a week trying to track down a deaf man accused of blowing up four buildings in the northern city of Shijiazhuang where at least 108 people were killed. The government offered more than $18,000 for his capture and plastered his picture across state-run TV and newspapers around the country.

Seven days after the blast, police finally caught the suspect in Beihai, a beach city on China's southern coast. He was identified as a former cotton mill worker named Jin Ruchao, whom authorities said had to communicate by writing messages on paper.

Jin had apparently traveled more than 1,200 miles without being detected. Fifteen years ago, Jin would have been lucky to have lasted more than a day on the run.

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