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China takes aim at gender imbalance

BEIJING -- China will not loosen its one-child policy, despite a top family planning official's acknowledgment yesterday that the rule is partly to blame for a worsening problem of too many boy babies and not enough girls in the world's most populous nation.

In 2005, some 118 boys were born in China for every 100 girls. In some regions, the figure has hit 130 boys for every 100 girls; the average for industrialized countries is between 104 and 107 boys for every 100 girls.

Zhang Weiqing, minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said the government is committed to solving gender imbalance within 10 to 15 years with education campaigns, punishments for sex-selective abortions, and rewards such as retirement pensions for parents who have girls.

"This problem is a reality of country life in China," said Zhang. "We have a 2,000-year feudal history that considered men superior to women."

He called gender imbalance "a very serious challenge for China."

Bates Gill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said pension benefits would help, but other financial incentives, such as school fees for girls, would also need to be included. He also thought it could take take several years before families learned they could trust the government to deliver on such promises.

Zhang said China's basic policy -- in effect since the late 1970s -- was reviewed and renewed without change last month. The policy limits urban couples to one child and rural families to two to control the population and conserve natural resources. Beijing says the rule has helped prevent 400 million births and has aided the nation's rapid economic development.

Dropping restrictions on childbearing now would risk a population surge as a baby boomer generation born in the early 1980s becomes ready to start families, Zhang said. Another factor in the government's decision is that many migrant workers living in cities have been evading restrictions and having two or more children, he said.

China has about 1.3 billion people -- 20 percent of the global total. The government has pledged to keep the population under 1.36 billion by 2010 and under 1.45 billion by 2020, Zhang said.

The one-child policy and easy availability of sonogram technology to determine fetal gender have prompted many families to abort girls, and other couples give up girls for adoption abroad so they can try for a son.

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