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[Special note: This Article written by Jim Yardley in 2005 was just too good not to post. It's an important development in the planet's attempt to wean itself away from patriarchial dominance. China will loom very large in the planet's future, and this development is a historical moment in evolutionary feminism. William A. Spriggs, Feb. 2005].

January 31, 2005
Fearing Future, China Starts to Give Girls Their Due
By JIM YARDLEY

NXI, China - For farming families in the lush mountains of coastal Fujian Province, the famous crop is oolong tea and the favorite source of labor is sons. The leafy bushes of tea fill the hillsides the same way young boys fill the village streets.

There is such a glut of boys here - roughly 134 are born for every 100 girls - that the imbalance has forced an unlikely response from the Chinese government. To persuade more families to have girls, it has decided in some cases to pay families that already have daughters.

The Communist Party is often vilified for its so-called one-child policy. The government credits the policy for sharply slowing China's population growth, but critics say it is a major reason many families now use prenatal scans and selective abortions to make certain that their child is a boy.

Today, China has one of the world's worst cases of "missing" girls. Until recent years, the government largely ignored or denied the problem. Last March, President Hu Jintao declared it must be solved by 2010. Government officials now have declared that selective sex abortions will become a criminal offense. Such abortions were already banned, but doctors often accepted bribes from parents who wanted to guarantee a boy.

Government officials are hardly backing away from population control. But the government is examining various possible changes. Last year, the State Council, China's cabinet, appointed a research group of 250 demographers and other experts to examine issues like imbalance between the sexes, dropping fertility rates and ways to prepare for China's rapidly aging population. It may also address whether and when China should move to a nationwide two-child policy to prevent a looming baby bust.

"In the future, I think we have to consider this issue," said Hao Linna, spokeswoman for the National Population and Family Planning Commission. "As for what time, when and how we need to research these issues. We need to study how to shift, in what form and what method."

Yet government officials agree that reversing the birth imbalance between boys and girls cannot be postponed. Experts debate to what extent China's population policy should be blamed for the problem, noting that the problem predates the one-child policy. Other Asian countries like India and South Korea without such policies also have lopsided birth rates. But statistics show that China's imbalance has widened since population controls began in the late 1970's.

In early January, the government announced that the nationwide ratio had reached 119 boys for every 100 girls. Studies show that the average rate for the rest of the world is about 105 boys for every 100 girls. Demographers predict that in a few decades China could have up to 40 million bachelors unable to find mates.

On a recent afternoon here in southeastern China, hundreds of students in the dirt courtyard of Lanxi Middle School held a parade rehearsal. The school goes through 12th grade, and about 60 percent of students in the higher grades are male. The marchers, mostly boys, waved flags and kicked dust in the air beside a billboard promoting the latest propaganda campaign: Respect Girls.

Local officials brought a visiting reporter here because Lanxi Middle School is participating in a Care for Girls pilot program. Female students from poor families are getting free tuition, as are students from families with two girls. The principal, Hu Hongbin, happily shows off an exhibition room where posters show girls in the program.

Mr. Hu said the exhibition room was supposed to build the self-esteem of girls, though it also seemed intended to impress visiting officials. Still, he said that young women were now eligible for college scholarships and that the number of recent female graduates attending college jumped to 271 in 2004 from 149 in 2003.

Lin Lingling, 18, a plucky senior who has hopes for college, is one of the stars of the program. "They say boys are good at logical things, so when they enter into high school, they say some of them are a lot better," said Ms. Lin, a top student. "But we are the same."

Still, most Chinese parents, particularly in rural areas, prefer sons. Li Shengming, an official with the Anxi Family Planning Commission, said this preference dated back centuries and was largely rooted in practical concerns. Farm families want sons for their labor, while all parents, worried about their old age, know that Chinese tradition holds that a son must care for his parents. A daughter, on the other hand, marries into her husband's family.

In the countryside, where there is no real social safety net, a son is considered the equivalent of a pension. "It used to be that if you only had girls, you were looked down upon," Mr. Li said.

In response, the government has introduced a test program under which about 300,000 rural elderly people are receiving annual pensions of $180, a good amount in the countryside, if they had only one child or if they had daughters.

Mr. Li said these fiscal incentives were intended to give monetary value to girls, and by doing so, reduce the incentive to abort them. Even so, the limited scope of the program has reduced its impact. Ms. Hao, the Beijing official, said Anxi was one of only 24 cities where girls were getting financial aid, and the budget is not expected to increase greatly.

China's population policy long ago ceased to be a true one-child rule. In broad terms, urban families, with exceptions, are usually limited to one child while rural families are allowed a second child if the first is a girl. Minority families, meanwhile, are sometimes allowed three or more children to keep their populations from declining.

In the rural Fujian Mountains, the pressure on families to have a boy as a second child is enormous. On what should have been one of the happiest days of her life, the birth of her second child, Liao Yanqing said she instead contemplated suicide because the baby was another girl.

"I felt I couldn't hold up my head walking in the village," she recalled. Her family is now one of a handful that has gotten government grants for having two girls, money the Liaos have used to buy a new house and a small restaurant. Both girls now go to school for free. "It has been quite a dramatic change," she said.

Even so, attitudes will be hard to change in male-dominated China. Officials used the recent birth of the country's 1.3 billionth citizen as a propaganda vehicle to laud government efforts to slow population growth to a more sustainable level. Without the policy, officials say, China would have 300 million more people.

The eight-pound baby, born in early January and still unnamed, turned out to be a boy. His first bath was nationally televised. Asked about the honor of his son's having such an auspicious birth, Zhang Tong, the father, could have been describing the different parental attitudes toward sons and daughters.

"I am the happiest guy in the world," Mr. Zhang told the state news media, "and my boy will be blessed all his life."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times