By ALEXA OLESEN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 23, 2007; 11:17 PM
BEIJING -- China will not loosen its one-child policy, despite a top family planning official's acknowledgment Tuesday that it was 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 _ like 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, that gave boys the right to carry on the family name and allowed men to be emperors while women could not."
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 like school fees for girls, would also need to be included. He also thought the effects of such projects would take several years before families learned they could trust the government to deliver on their 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 it 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.
Susan Greenhalgh, professor of anthropology at the University of California Irvine, said her research shows Chinese "couples' childbearing preferences have changed" since imposition of the one-child policy, and many now say they would only choose to have one child.
The 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.
The United States is the No. 1 destination for Chinese children adopted abroad. China recently imposed new restrictions on foreign adoptions, barring applicants who are unmarried, obese, over 50 or who take certain medications.
Heather Terry, spokeswoman for Great Wall China Adoptions, said the new restrictions show China is committed to ensuring "only the best" for the girls given up for adoption.
China is "approaching (adoption), the way they approached their population problem: We need to tighten up a bit to get this under control," said Terry, whose agency is one of the largest in the U.S. that organizes adoptions from China.
Greenhalgh said that though sex selection was a problem in the past, "people's gender preferences are shifting where girls are at least as desirable as sons."
City-dwellers, most of whom will receive pensions upon retirement, depend less on their children for financial support, Greenhalgh said, so they are happy to have girls, whom they often consider better providers of emotional care late in life.
While popularly referred to as China's "one-child policy," the rule limits only 36 percent of the population to having one child, said Wang Guoqing, the family planning commission's vice director.
Most people, or 53 percent, are allowed to have a second child if their first is a girl. Poor farmers with a two-child limit account for nearly 10 percent of the population, while ethnic minorities _ who are allowed to have two or more children _ make up 1.6 percent of the total.
The complex policy reflects the greatly varied economic and social realities in different regions of China, Zhang said.
He said the government has begun studying the impact of a generation of "only children" _ since the late 1970s, nearly 100 million children have been born who will never have siblings.
"China's only boys and girls are certainly not as scary as some people say, like those who call them 'little emperors' or 'little titans' who can't tolerate authority," Zhang said.
"The majority of them have had a healthy childhood," he said. "You can see for yourself. Young people today are very energetic and creative." In addition, he said, they are likely to be better educated than children from bigger families, because parents need not divide their resources among many children.
"They are much better off than I was, being one of four kids," said Zhang, 62. "I envy them."
AP Writer Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report from New York.