CHINA: ‘Why Not A Baby Girl?’ Urban Parents Ask

  • by Mitch Moxley (beijing)
  • Inter Press Service

'If my son wants to work in a place far from us when he grows up, the daughter can stay and take care of us,' says the 34-year-old Li.

She and her husband own a software company in Beijing that earns the couple about 500,000 yuan (74,828 U.S. dollars) a year — enough to afford circumventing the one- child policy. Under this policy, couples need to pay a fine, based on families’ annual income, that has been reported to range from 45,000 dollars to more than 100,000 dollars.

'And it’s too expensive to raise a boy, especially in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. We have to buy him an apartment at least. Otherwise it will be difficult for him to find a girlfriend,' Li adds.

Li and Dai are not alone in their wish for a girl of their own. In China, where a historical preference for boys has led to a dramatic gender imbalance, attitudes about having girls are beginning to change in urban areas. According to a 2009 survey of 3,500 prospective parents in Shanghai, 15 percent of those interviewed wanted a baby daughter compared to 12 percent who wanted a baby boy. The rest had no preference.

Li says many of her friends also hope to have a baby girl, aware that China’s gender imbalance has reached dangerous levels. She also views as outdated the attitude that girls cannot accomplish as much as boys. 'Girls can also inherit a family business,' she says. 'They can be as able as men.'

Several factors have contributed to changing these attitudes, sociologists and demographers say. A booming economy in the last decade has created more opportunities for woman, particularly in the cities. Rising incomes have rendered moot the traditional reasons for wanting a boy — namely that a boy will earn more money to support his parents in old age.

Others, like Li, think that the cost of raising a boy is too great and feel that a daughter is better equipped to take care of them in old age.

China’s gender imbalance remains potentially calamitous. In 2005, the last year for which data is available, there were 119 boys born for every 100 girls. In some areas, the ratio was as high as 130 males for every 100 females.

In rural areas especially, the historical preference for boys has led to a number of societal ills, including selective abortion, prostitution and human trafficking. China has a surplus of some 32 million boys.

But as attitudes change, some demographers have suggested China could follow a path blazed by neighbouring South Korea, where a dramatic shift in gender attitudes has taken place in the last 20 years. In 2006, Korea’s gender ratio was 107.4 boys born for every 100 girls, down from a peak of 116.5 boys to every 100 girls in 1990, according to a 2007 World Bank study. (Demographers consider a 105 to 100 ratio as normal).

Beginning in the late 1980s, Korea experienced many of the same changes China is undergoing today. Major shifts in the country’s economy created opportunities for women in the work force, changing long-held attitudes toward women’s role in society. In the 1970s, the Korean government launched a campaign to change the public’s attitudes about gender and in 1987 it banned doctors from revealing the sex of a foetus before birth.

China still has a long way to go before it can match Korea, however.

A study in 2010 by the government-supported Chinese Academy of Social Sciences named the gender imbalance among newborns — not overpopulation — the country’s most serious demographic problem. 'Sex-specific abortions remained extremely commonplace, especially in rural areas,' the study said.

The study attributed the gender imbalance to China’s three-decade-old one-child policy and to a poor social security system. Wang Guangzhou, one of the study’s researchers, said the imbalance could lead to men who earn lower incomes having difficulty in finding wives, according to the English-language ‘Global Times’ newspaper.

'The chance of getting married will be rare if a man is more than 40 years old in the countryside. They will be more dependent on social security as they age and have fewer household resources to rely on,' another researcher, Wang Yuesheng, told the ‘Global Times’. The paper, citing the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said abductions and trafficking of women were 'rampant' in areas with too many men.

But Zheng Zhenzi, director of the Institute of Population Research at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, says that although attitudes about having a baby girl are changing in the cities, the preference for boys in rural areas remains firmly in place.

At the same time, Zheng told IPS that China has made great strides in terms of gender equality. There are a growing number of women in government administrative positions, legislation on gender equality continues to rise and there are more women receiving education at high levels.

'Most women today have equal status as their husbands,' Zheng says. 'But there is still a long way to go.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service