Saturday, May 07, 2011

Why not a baby girl?

China's gender gap was a hot topic last week after the latest population census showed that men outnumbered women by 34 million - and the gap is growing. The Straits Times examines China's urban and rural society's attitudes towards females, and how this will contribute to the sex imbalance in coming years.

By Grace Ng, China Correspondent
Vital stats

During the last decade (2000-2010), the average gender ratio of newborn babies was 118 males to 110 females.
There are 34 million more men than women in China. This is the smallest imbalance in half a century.
By 2020, 24 million men may not have a mate.
By 2030, when China's total population is expected to peak at about 1.5 billion, 15 per cent of young Chinese men may have no marriage prospects. No official figures were given for the exact number.

Ms Liu Chen said her eight-year-old daughter, Wan Zimo, 'is very close to her heart', adding: 'Daughters tend to bond more with mothers, unlike sons.' -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIU CHEN

BEIJING: Although the law allows Mr Xing Hua to have another child, he and his wife are content with just one - and she's a girl at that, in son-obsessed China.

'Having a daughter is a blessing,' he said. 'I see other parents stressed out and busy helping their sons to buy property so that they can marry a girl.'

The 30-year-old Beijing real estate manager is eligible for a second child because both he and his wife are single children themselves. But like a growing number of young urban Chinese, the couple were not worried whether their firstborn was a girl or boy.

His parents wanted him to have a son to carry on the family name, but he insisted on focusing on raising his daughter, Ya Ning, who is now nine years old. 'I just want to give her the best,' he said. 'I don't need a son.'

This changing attitude to baby girls in urban areas comes amid news last week that the nation's ratio of males to females is the most 'balanced' in half a century.

Men make up 51.3 per cent of the population of 1.34 billion and women, 48.7 per cent. But the gender gap is still staggering: there are 34 million more men than women. And the gap may become a gulf. By 2020, 24 million single men may be unable to find wives, government researchers warned in a report last year.

Women have proven how valuable they are in society: females in the cities now match - or even surpass - men in their economic contributions to family and society. No wonder parents born after 1970 are even showing a preference for daughters.

But one of the most common reasons girls are in favour is that Chinese men have to fork out huge sums to buy a home before they can marry their girlfriends.

Many bachelors interviewed on TV dating talk shows and by the media say they cannot afford such a costly dowry in China's red-hot property market.

Many Chinese now even think high property prices will reduce the social tradition of zhong nan qing nu ('favouring males and looking down on females').

Almost half of 267,250 polled by Internet portal on Dec 30 last year agreed that 'high property prices would make more people want daughters'.

Another 48 per cent said the sexes in China have become more equal because 'men cannot bear the burden of such high real estate prices'.

Professor Li Xiaoping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences agreed: 'The costs of bringing up a son are very high. You need one, two or even three million yuan to buy a house.' (One million yuan is about S$190,000).

Social attitudes towards daughters have changed in big cities such as Chengdu and Shanghai, he noted. 'Some (parents) feel they won't even get half a son after he gets married, but daughters are comparatively more obedient.'

Indeed, girls tend to be more filial and continue to support their parents financially after marriage, many mothers say.

Ms Liu Chen, a housewife in her 30s, said her eight-year-old daughter, Wan Zimo, 'is very close to her heart', adding: 'Daughters tend to bond more with mothers, unlike sons.'

Chinese society had progressed to a stage where 'men are the ones complaining their rights need to be protected because women nowadays are so strong', Ms Liu said.

Indeed, the fairer sex is living up to Mao Zedong's famous proverb that 'women hold up half the sky'.

Women are graduating from universities at nearly the same rate as men, and make up nearly 40 per cent of MBA students at top-ranked programmes in prestigious Chinese universities.

Women are also working as hard as men in the office. They average 71 work hours a week at multinational firms and 72 hours a week in China-headquartered companies, a study by New York-based Centre for Work-Life Policy said last month. Those statistics are based on an online survey of more than 60,000 college students who will graduate in July.

But women still face a playing field that is not level in corporate and political China. They lag behind in the job market: a survey of more than 60,000 college students who graduated in July last year by MyCOS, an occupational consultancy, found that just 21 per cent of the females had signed initial work contracts by the end of February. This compared to almost 30 per cent for male graduates.

Asked if she was worried about her daughter's job prospects, Ms Liu said she had confidence in her daughter: 'We do our best to provide her with the best education and conditions so she can find a stable job and marry happily next time.'

But it remains to be seen whether the shift in Chinese urbanites' attitudes towards daughters will be enough to alter the gender imbalance.

Nearly 200 million Chinese are reaching child-bearing age between 2008 and 2018. Their decisions about whether to keep or abort daughters will play a key role in the future gender ratio.

Population experts such as Professor Gui Shixun of the East China Normal University Research Institute noted that while parents in the cities are less concerned about the sex of their offspring, parents in the countryside cling to a traditional preference for sons.

But he is optimistic, citing potential changes such as relaxing the one-child policy to allow two children per family.

He said: 'There is hope the higher ratio of men to women will become more balanced over the next decade or two.'