China, the most populous nation on Earth, could find itself dealing with the combined frustrations of as many as 40 million single men by 2020 because its one-child policy is creating a shortage of female babies. \nIn an unusually frank speech on China's looming demographic crisis, Li Weixiong, who advises the country's political consultative conference on population issues, said a cultural preference for boys was creating an artificial disparity between the number of boys and girls that represents "a serious threat to building a well-off society." \nLi said the dearth of women would lead to a dramatic rise in prostitution and the trafficking of women. "This is by no means a sensational prediction," he said. \nThe search for love is leading traditionally staid Chinese men down unfamiliar paths. There are reports of men placing ads in major newspapers begging women to respond. If the ads are anything to go by -- with some ads emphasizing the possession of a good bathroom -- the way to a modern Chinese woman's heart is a spacious apartment and a decent salary. \nWealthier men are reportedly taking their search beyond China's borders, a risky tactic given that many Chinese households have been less than welcoming to foreign brides. \nUnmarried men with less money often have no choice but to turn to illegal brokers, who dupe rural women into moving to the city with bogus job offers. \nThe widespread introduction of ultrasound testing has enabled a much larger number of Chinese couples to choose to abort female foetuses in the hope that the next pregnancy will produce a son. \nLi said the gender ratio had stayed relatively normal up until 1982 -- two years after the Chinese authorities imposed the one-child rule -- at 100 girls born for every 108 boys. But by 2000, the ratio had shifted significantly to about 117 boys to 100 girls. \nThe disparity is even bigger in rural areas, where the boy-to-girl imbalance is estimated to be as high as 130 to 100. \nAbortions are not the only cause of the imbalance. There is alarming evidence that the intense pressure on couples to make sure their only child is a boy has prompted a resurgence of female infanticide, despite official attempts to stamp out the centuries-old practice. \nRural families are said to be particularly tempted to kill female offspring, such is the pressure to produce a child capable of coping with the physical demands of farming and prevent cash-strapped farming households from being plunged even deeper into poverty. \nIn some cases, according to reports, other girls are hidden from the authorities, or die at a young age through neglect. \nEven in urban areas, boys are generally preferred because they are regarded as more able than girls to provide for their families, care for elderly relatives and continue the family line. \nThe government, stung by accusations from child welfare groups that it is turning a blind eye to the practice of girl-killing, has allowed some provinces to grant couples permission to have more than one child provided they pay a fine to register each extra birth. \nIn some villages, local officials have placed dozens of posters bearing the message: "Daughters are as good as sons!" \nDespite growing evidence of the enormous social cost of their one-child policy, officials in Beijing insist there are no plans to relax the measure, which they regard as the most important weapon in China's battle to keep its population below 1.6 billion until 2050. \nStatistically, the policy has had some success. The authorities say it has prevented well over 300 million births since it was introduced in 1980 and is fulfilling its initial aim of ensuring that China can combat rural poverty and improve standards of living across the board. \nAccording to the UN, China's population stood at 1.3 billion last year, but independent estimates believe couples with extra children are hiding them from census authorities, meaning the actual figure could be as high as 1.5 billion. \nAs the country's economy continues to grow and transform at an unprecedented rate, pressure to relax the policy looks likely to intensify if Li's worst-case scenario of social unrest, exploitation of women and crime turns out to be correct. \n"Such serious gender disproportion poses a major threat to the healthy, harmonious and sustainable growth of the nation's population and would trigger such crimes and social problems as abduction of women and prostitution," he said. \nHis claims are supported by official figures showing that police freed more than 42,000 kidnapped women and children in 2001 and 2002. \nMany of the victims are believed to have been sold into marriage or prostitution. \nElisabeth Croll, professor of Chinese anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said she welcomed Li's warning as it would remind China's leaders of the magnitude of the problem they face. \n"It is not a new trend," she said. "Demographers in China as well as foreign analysts have been expressing concern for some years. In the last census it was quite clear that this was an upward trend and it is forecast that there will be a shortage of potential marriage mates which will lead to some social instability." \nSeveral years ago the government prohibited doctors from telling couples the sex of their child, but the measure seems to have had little effect. Li called for a ban on mid-term abortions, except in cases with health concerns. \nChina's experience could prove a lesson to other countries in the region whose populations are also being skewed by gender imbalance. \nCroll said: "It is an Asia-wide problem affecting many countries including Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and India. It is something that is increasing with development instead of decreasing." \nThe professor, who wrote about the issue in her recent book Endangered Daughters: Discrimination and Development in Asia, said it was a mistake to blame girl infanticide in China only on a resurgence of "old ideas." \nFor many families, she said, the preference for a son makes simple economic sense as they are less likely to leave the family home after marrying and, as higher earners than women, are more able to provide for the extended family. \nCroll said more families in China's rapidly expanding cities were favoring sons, partly because a decline in pensions over the past decade had made older people less secure and more reliant on their children. \nIf the authorities are reluctant to lift the birth limit, possible long-term solutions to the looming dearth of eligible women may be even more unpalatable. They include altering the traditional marital balance of power and bringing women's pay more into line with that of men, enabling them to better support their families.
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