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In China's Countryside, 'It's a Boy!' Too Often

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 29, 2001; Page A01


XICUN VILLAGE, China -- Not much seems to have changed in Xicun, a cliff-side village deep in the mountains of southern Guangxi province. Except when you scan the birth records.

Last year, 20 children were born to the women of Xicun. Sixteen were boys. The year before, 24 were born and 19 were boys. There is a reason for the preponderance of males: In 1999, the medical center that serves Xicun bought a cheap, Chinese-made ultrasound machine that allowed doctors to determine the sex of a fetus. Sex-selective abortions followed. And now the town, like hundreds of others in China, is facing a boom in boys.

Sex-selective abortions, infanticide and significant differences in children's access to medical care are contributing to an increasingly skewed sex ratio in China's countryside, Western and Chinese researchers say. Figures released this year as part of China's census show there are 117 boys born for every 100 girls.

In heavily rural areas such as Guangxi, where boys are prized because of their value for farm work and because they inherit the land, the numbers approach 140 boys for every 100 girls, well off the international norm of 105 to 100. Overall, Chinese researchers say, there are 41 million more males than females among China's 1.2 billion people, up 10 percent from the previous estimate in 1997.

As in India, South Korea and other Asian countries where sons are valued more than daughters, advanced medical technology has simplified the quest for a male heir in China. The problem is exacerbated here by a decades-old policy of limiting births, Western and Chinese researchers say.

China's family planning policy also complicates efforts to determine the extent of the problem. Strict limits on births have forced millions of parents to hide unapproved children, resulting in what Chinese call a "black population" of as many as 6 million unregistered children. Many of these children are believed to be girls.

Sensitive to criticism of its family planning policies and concerned about the sex ratio, the government has also strictly controlled information about the issue. The last major article about the problem in China's mainstream press appeared in 1997. Since then, despite government efforts, including a nationwide ban on sex-selective abortions, the situation has not improved, researchers say.

Researchers predict the social consequences could be disastrous. Already, "bachelor villages," inhabited predominantly by men, dot parts of China's poorer regions, in northern Shaanxi province, and in Ningxia and Guangxi provinces. Chinese police researchers say crime has grown among the millions of men of marrying age who cannot find a bride. A trade in kidnapped women is booming: 110,000 were freed during a crackdown last year. Chinese gangs also traffic in Vietnamese and North Korean women for would-be Chinese husbands.

More broadly, Western and Chinese researchers are concerned that the trend, and the unintended consequences of family planning policies, will reinforce a sense that the lives of little girls -- and the women they grow up to be -- are less valuable than those of boys and men.

"When the Chinese talk about the social consequences of this issue they always frame it as a problem for the poor men who can't find brides," said Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist at the University of California at Irvine, who has studied the sex ratio in China. "What about the girls? I see this issue as another step toward turning Chinese girls and women into commodities."

Dalu village lies on a flat plain near Guangxi's coast on the South China Sea. Seventy percent of the children here are boys. The reasons are not simply cultural; China's policies are also responsible.

Take Wan Baoqi, a mother of three. Her first child was a girl. Under China's policies, if a farmer's first child is female, the couple can try again for a boy. Wan's next child was a boy.

But he was born with a slow right eye and Wan said he is mentally handicapped. Again, under China's policies, if a male child is disabled, the family can have another. Wan's next child was also a boy. "We're stopping with this one," she said, snuggling the healthy baby inside the courtyard of her house.

Wan would not say whether she had sex-selective abortions before having her second son.

"Let's not talk about that," she said. "All I can say is having a boy is key for us. Some people say it's because we're backward," she continued, referring to bureaucrats from Beijing who criticize the predilection for boys as a throwback to feudal times. "The real reason is that we need someone to fetch water, to guard our orchard, to work in the fields and to care for us when we get old."

Wan's desire for a male heir is firmly grounded in economics. There is no social safety net in China's villages -- the government has just started to weave one in the cities -- so parents generally rely on sons in their old age. In addition, China is a patrilineal society, which means inheritance passes from father to son. Chinese also prefer boys because in most parts of the country, a woman marries into her husband's family.

"My girl is going to marry out of the family," Wan said. "So why should we devote resources to her?"

Wan's attitude is not uncommon in China's villages. Research released here in 1999 showed that mortality rates for girls between birth and age 4 were substantially higher than those for boys, because families often did not provide medical care for their daughters.

"If the son is sick, families in the countryside will get a doctor," said Wu Cangping, a senior demographer. "If the girl is sick, they won't. Also, families tend not to let their daughters continue too long in school because tuition is expensive, so they don't learn health education."

Figures released in 1997 reinforce Wu's description. In China's countryside, mortality in the first year of life was 27 percent higher for girls than for boys. In Guangxi, female infant mortality was 60 percent higher.

In the late 1970s, as China prepared its family planning policies, Chinese researchers debated whether the strict program to limit births would result in a surfeit of boys. An open letter issued by the government and inaugurating what was then known as the "one child" policy argued that sex ratios would not change as a result of family planning.

But Greenhalgh's research in the early 1990s showed that the sex ratio of newborns was closely linked to the intensity with which the family planning policies were carried out. In three villages in Shaanxi, she found that the ratio fluctuated from 114 boys to 100 girls in 1979-83, when the "one child" policy first was promulgated, to 98 to 100 in the locally lenient period of 1984-87, to a very high 145 to 100 in the 1988-93 period, when the policy was strictly enforced. Studies by the Bureau of Civil Affairs in Hunan province in 1990 came up with a similar link.

Ultrasound machines made their debut in China in the mid-1980s. Chinese firms near Shanghai and in surrounding Jiangsu province now churn out thousands of machines a year for less than $2,000 apiece.

"It's not one or two counties that have them," Wu said. "Every county has one. Even townships have them now."

The government issued a ban on sex-selective abortions in 1993, and in 1995 passed a law criminalizing them. Still, Chinese and Western doctors say, the practice continues.

In Dalu, Pan Juan, 58, a mother of four, said she tries not to think about the "other one" -- her fifth child whom she last saw when the girl was just several days old. "She was a mistake; we were worried about fines. So we gave her away," the grizzled grandmother said.

Pan said she does not know what happened to the girl. "Many people do that. They just bundle the child up and leave it with the government," she said. "Perhaps she made it to America."

Over the past decade, Americans have adopted more than 30,000 Chinese babies; almost all of them have been girls.

Pan's biggest worry now is about her youngest son, 20.

"I don't really think about the little girl," she said. "But my last son, I don't know if he's going to find a wife. There are no girls left."



2001 The Washington Post Company


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