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In China, desire for boys becoming national crisis | (KRT) YONGXING, China — In Yongxing Township on the southern island of Hainan, for every 100 girls born there are an average of 141 boys.

The reality, here and in other parts of China, is that most rural families want sons. So when young women get pregnant they often go to clinics and ask ultrasound technicians to determine the gender of their unborn children.

"When you find out it's a girl, you have an abortion," said Su Jinmin, a grandfather in Taiping village. "In rural areas, most people would like to have a boy."

China now has the most serious problems with gender imbalance of anywhere on Earth. The nation has 12.7 million more boys than girls under age 9. By 2020, it may have 30 million to 40 million restless young men unable to find spouses. Experts foresee the skewed ratio leading to an increase in prostitution and the selling of women.

The prevailing desire for boys is already visible in many parts of China, where classrooms have mostly boys and orphanages have mostly girls.

A 1982 census showed China's gender ratio was near normal, 100 girls for every 104 to 107 boys. The reason for that slight disparity is that males tend to die more than females from disease and war, and nature appears to compensate.

By 1990, the ratio had climbed to 100 girls to 111 boys. By 2000, it was 100 girls to 117 boys. In parts of southern China's Guangdong and Hainan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the ratio hit 100 to 140, with some pockets reporting ratios as high as 100 girls to 160 boys.

"In the last two years or so, I think the Chinese government really has looked at the census data and said, `We have a problem here,'" said Siri Tellier, the representative in China for the United Nations Population Fund.

Other Asian countries, such as India and South Korea, also have serious gender imbalances. But in parts of China, social, cultural and economic factors make the problem particularly severe.

The Chinese government banned the use of ultrasound for gender-selection abortions in 1992. For years afterward, officials refused to recognize that the country still had a problem.

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Doctors looking for bribes came up with ways to offer clues to gender while giving pregnant women ultrasound checkups to determine the health of the unborn.

"They don't tell you. They just signal. Maybe they'll raise their right hand," said Li Weixiong, a reproductive health physician and member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress, a national advisory body, who warned of the perils of gender imbalance at a national meeting in Beijing in March.

In most places, penalties for sex-selective abortions are mild. Doctors' fines can be less than $30. Only since early 2003 has the government imposed tougher sanctions on a few regions with extreme imbalances.

"You need a more serious penalty," said Li, who's also the director of the research institute of the National Family Planning Commission. "I think you need ... to suspend the medical license or maybe send them to prison."

On tropical Hainan Island, China's southernmost province, young parents are straightforward about their desire for boys. They cite reasons ranging from the need for help in the fields and on fishing boats to fears about how they'll survive in old age.

"If you have a boy, it shows the prosperity of your family. If you have daughters, when they grow up they move away," said Xu Caijun, a 28-year-old housewife, as she cradled her 2-year-old son, Li Saite, outside a vegetable market in the provincial capital of Haikou.

In rural China, daughters marry out of their own families and into their husbands' families. Sons - by law and long-standing tradition - care for their parents when they grow old.

China has no real social security system, so older people without savings or sons to care for them must work until they die. A folk saying goes, "Rear a son, protect yourself in old age."

The elderly now make up 11 percent of China's 1.3 billion population. By 2040, people older than 60 will be 28 percent of the population.

Sons are prized in China, and in some rural areas girls are neglected.

"If the son gets a disease, they'll send him to the hospital or clinic. If the girl gets a disease, they just wait for her to recover," said Li, the physician and government adviser.

For some 25 years, China's communist leaders have carried out coercive policies to slow population growth that limit births to one per urban family and generally two per rural family. Exceptions to the policy are allowed for some people, including war veterans, minorities, parents with disabled children and couples who are themselves single children.

Having a child outside the limits can be punished by a fine of three to five times the family's annual wage and forced sterilization. The policy has averted 300 million births, officials say.

In places such as Hainan, where many parents are permitted two children, the topic of gender draws people quickly into conversation.

Under a shade tree in the dusty village of Taiping, population 1,800, women sit shelling peanuts. They giggle loudly when a visitor raises the topic. Men gather around and dominate the conversation. They say most couples would like a boy and a girl, but will do anything to have at least one boy. Girls are seen almost as a luxury.

"If you can afford to, maybe you can have the girl. If you can't, you get an abortion," Wang Xixiao said.

At a nearby village clinic, Dr. Fu Jingbao looked uneasy when asked about gender-selective abortions, declaring loudly that penalties in Hainan have been stiffened for any doctor who uses ultrasound to determine genders of fetuses.

"Before June of last year, it was quite common. But since then, no one dares to do it," he said, pulling out a local newspaper clipping. The article noted that a few weeks earlier, a private clinic in nearby Haikou was found to have performed 600 gender-selected abortions in the past two years. It was summarily shut down.

On Hainan, party officials have set targets for each township to lower the gender imbalance. Yongxing Township must go from a ratio of 100 girls to 141 boys to 100:128.

In richer provinces, such as Guangdong, tradition more than economic motive is responsible for the gender gap. Long-standing tradition holds that only sons carry on a family name and tend to rites such as looking after family tombs.

In a new book, "Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population," two Western political scientists, Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer, say a glut of males in China and India could lead to high levels of social disorder and even war. They suggest that the two nations may become more bellicose to cope with the restless energy of single young men.

That argument seems extreme to some social scientists, but they acknowledge that the long-term consequences are hard to forecast.

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© 2004, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services