China's population is expected to reach 1.42 billion by 2020, while the birth gender ratio is expected to be reduced to 112 boys for every 100 girls, according to a population development plan for the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) recently released by the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NFHPC).
In a wide-ranging interview with China.org.cn to coincide with the report's release, Zhai Zhenwu, vice chairman of China Population Association and professor of sociology and population studies at Beijing's Renmin University of China, discussed the population development planning.
Imbalanced sex ratio at birth since 1985
Prof. Zhai said gender imbalance has become a very acute issue in China with a far-reaching impact on the country's population structure and social-economic development.
He cited some statistics from the development plan. "Before 1985, the birth gender ratio was 106 or 107 boys for every 100 girls, which was still a normally-accepted gap. However, the number kept growing year-by-year, and in 2000 it reached 120 boys for every 100 girls; in some provinces it was even up to 135 to100."
Such a big imbalance is rarely seen in the world in terms of degree, duration and scope, he stressed. "The issue has aroused great concern throughout society, and some media have continuously reported that millions of men are facing a 'bachelor crisis,'" he said.
Thanks to great efforts by all sides, the ratio declined to 113 boys to 100 girls in 2016, the lowest in decades, Professor Zhai added.
Main reasons for imbalance
The professor identified three main reasons for the gender imbalance.
The first is a traditional social attitude that regards men as superior to women, which prevails especially in rural areas like those in Guangdong and Fujian provinces in southern China. This reflects the financial reality that a son will take care of his ageing parents, while a daughter will normally marry and be lost to the family in this regard.
Even though people's living standards have greatly improved, their deep-rooted attitude in this regard has not changed accordingly.
The second reason is sex-selective abortion, which has made the situation worse. Despite a ban on pre-natal sex tests and gender-based abortions, both have seen a steady rise in some areas since ultrasound technology was introduced. Early sex-selective abortions were performed in many rural hospitals, where pregnant women asked doctors to help identify the sex of the fetus and induce an abortion if it was a girl.
The third reason is an overall decline in the country's birth rate. This is related to the state family planning policy implemented for nearly four decades known as the "one-child policy."
A relatively weak social security system in rural areas
Prof. Zhai argued that the social security system in rural areas is still weaker compared with that in urban areas. "That's why the old saying of 'bringing up sons to provide against old age' still prevails in rural areas," he said.
The law provides that both men and women have the obligation to support the elderly; however, in reality, rural men, especially, still bear the largest obligation to support older generations. Another old Chinese saying says that, "a married daughter is like spilt water," meaning she is no longer a member of the family but has obligations, instead, to her parents-in-law.
The professor said people in rural areas are still engaged in heavy manual and physical labor and that boys can make a greater contribution to the family than girls in terms of agricultural production.
In some remote rural areas, men even still have the obligation of "having a son to carry on the family name," as the names of female family members often cannot be placed in ancestral halls.
Gender discrimination in job market
"We need to do a lot of work in abolishing gender discrimination in employment and to pursue equality between men and women, which is a permanent solution to the issue," he said.
Gender discrimination still exists in employment in China where it is more difficult for a female university graduate to find a job than a male counterpart. "I think abolishing gender discrimination in employment to pursue gender equality is the most fundamental measure to narrow the gap in the gender ratio.
"We must aim for permanent control of the problem of imbalanced gender ratios at birth and recognize that we cannot solve the problem by taking only stopgap measures."
Speaking of the current implementation of a two-child policy, Prof. Zhai said it will surely promote healthy population development and result in an overall sex ratio difference at birth declining.
With the modernization and development of urbanization and the improvement of education standards, people's preference for boys at birth will get weaker and weaker, he stressed.