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Sunday, July 25, 2004

CHINA'S AGING POPULATION

Gender imbalance exacting social costs


HONG KONG -- A quarter of a century ago, China decided to focus on economic development rather than Maoist class struggle. As part of that drive, it adopted a policy of limiting population growth with couples allowed to have only one child in the cities. Chinese officials say that as a result, 300 million births have been prevented. Without such a policy, China's population today would stand at 1.6 billion.

However, the success in keeping population growth down has been achieved at great social cost. A combination of the traditional preference for sons over daughters and modern ultrasound technology means that millions of female fetuses have been aborted. The resulting gender imbalance in the country has assumed grave proportions.

A 1999 report by the International Planned Parenthood Federation estimated that between 500,000 and 750,000 unborn Chinese girls have been aborted every year since gender screening began. In addition, countless baby girls have been killed after childbirth.

While the male/female ratio of newborns globally is about 105 boys to 100 girls, in China it is 117 boys for every 100 baby girls. In Guangdong province, neighboring Hong Kong, the ratio is 130 boys to 100 girls.

This means that millions of men will be unable to find wives. By 2020, it is estimated, 30 to 40 million men of marriageable age will have to live as bachelors if current trends remain unchanged. The gender imbalance is also leading to greater numbers of girls being kidnapped, bigamy, prostitution and rape. Bride bartering or kidnapping is already commonplace in rural areas. China's crime rate has tripled in 20 years and most of the offenses appear to have been committed by rootless young men.

The gender imbalance has even reached the attention of President Hu Jintao. In March, Hu urged the country to deal with the problem as a key task.

Another serious problem is the aging of the population. While the phenomenon is one that marks all modern societies, in China society has aged fast because of the millions of unborn babies. This means that increasingly larger numbers of nonproductive elderly people will have to be supported by a shrinking pool of those economically active.

At a press conference last week, Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said central authorities are determined to take action to tackle these problems. She said the target was to lower the male-female ratio of newborns to the normal level by 2010.

The commission has launched a nationwide Girl Care Project to persuade people that girls should be cherished just as much as boys. In China, boys traditionally have been important because they continue the family line. On a more practical level, they are also the ones who take care of their parents in their old age because girls leave home when they get married and become members of their husbands' household.

The government is also beginning a pilot program in some rural areas to pay $144 annually to parents who have two girls, to one-child parents and to those with a disabled child when they reach 60 years of age. (In the countryside, couples whose first child is a girl are allowed to have a second baby.) The plan is to extend the program to the whole country next year. However, it is unlikely that the ingrained preference for boys will be easily removed.

Ironically, a policy devised to hasten economic development may have ramifications that hinder growth. According to Li Weixiong, an official with the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, "a serious gender imbalance poses a major threat to the healthy, harmonious and sustainable growth of the nation's population, and could trigger such crimes and social problems as mercenary marriage, abduction of women and prostitution."

According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China today has 134 million people older than 60 -- more than 10 percent of the population. There are 94 million people older than 65, or more than 7 percent of the population. This means that China already meets the international criteria for an aging society. By 2025, 18.4 percent of the population will be older than 60 and, by 2050, more than 25 percent.

If China wants people to end the centuries-old preference for boys, it will have to create a safety net for its elderly so that people are not dependent on their children. Unless the problem is resolved, the target of making China a "fairly well-off" society by the middle of this century may prove elusive.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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