China Offers Parents Cash for Girls

Three young Chinese boys

Three young boys in China's southwest Gangxi province on September 14, 2003. (Photo: Peter Parks/AFP-Getty Images)

China is offering to pay couples a premium for producing baby girls to counter an alarming gender imbalance created by the country's one-child population control policy.

Last year, 117 boys were born for every 100 girls in China, compared with a global average of 105 to 100.

Faced by a socially destabilising shortage of more than 30-million women by 2020, senior family planning officials said on Thursday that they will offer welfare incentives to couples with two daughters and tighten the prohibition on sex-selective abortions.

"China has set the goal of lowering the sex ratio to a normal level by 2010," said Zhao Baige, vice-minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.

To reverse the trend, pilot programmes are already under way in China's poorest provinces. In some areas, couples with two daughters and no sons have been promised an annual payment of R430 (about $80 US) once they reach 60 years of age.

The money, which is a significant sum in areas where the average income is about R5 (less than $1.00 US) a day, will also be given to families with only one child to discourage couples with a daughter from trying again for a boy.

Some regions have gone further. In parts of Fujian province, local governments have given housing grants of approximately R11000 ($1700 US) to couples with two girls.

The state will expand welfare programmes so poor couples rely less on producing a son to care for them in their old age. It will also push a "caring for girls" propaganda campaign to counter the preference for boys.

But it is far from certain that the measures will be any more successful than previous attempts to reverse the preference for boys.

Many families, particularly in rural areas, place greater value on sons, who are considered best suited to continue the family line, generate income and ensure that parents are cared for during their old age.

As a result, a disproportionate number of female fetuses are aborted and girls are at greater risk than boys of being abandoned or sold.

Government policies have also contributed to the disparity, because rural couples are given greater freedom to have a second child if the first is a daughter.

Officials blame the imbalance on cultural rather than political factors. They point out that other Asian nations, notably India and South Korea, have experienced similar problems.

But China's demographic distortions have clearly worsened since the introduction of the one-child policy. In 1982, the country's boy-girl ratio was similar to the global average.

The consequences are already apparent. In rural areas such as Hainan Island, there are reports of classrooms filled mostly with boys and orphanages filled mainly with girls.

In the future, population planners fear the lack of brides will create social tensions as men migrate and compete more fiercely for mates. Wife selling, baby trafficking and prostitution are all expected to increase as the first generation born under the one-child policy hits the normal marriage age.

Many of these problems predate the one-child policy, but they appear to be getting worse.

According to the United Nations Children's Fund, about 250,000 people were victims of trafficking in China in 2003.

In the latest case, Chinese police arrested 95 members of a gang in Inner Mongolia accused of buying 76 babies to trade in other provinces.

Last year, police freed 42,000 kidnapped women and children, which they say is only a fraction of the total traded.

Despite such problems, the government insists the one-child policy is necessary. Since 1980, family-planning officials say the restrictions have prevented 300-million births that would have otherwise overwhelmed an overcrowded nation of 1.3-billion people.

The Chinese government is increasingly accepting free-market principles in the business field, but state intervention continues to guide demographic policy.

Two laws have been passed banning gynecologists from telling pregnant women the sex of a fetus once it is confirmed by ultrasound checks. But as doctors are increasingly more dependent on private income, many accept payments to reveal the gender and find an excuse for an abortion if it is a girl.