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China faces future as land of boys

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Chinese President Hu Jintao has earmarked the imbalance as something that needs to be adjusted in the next 10 years. The government has geared up an ambitious set of financial incentives. Ultrasound exams for non-medical purposes have been illegal since 1994, but only in recent months has there been a major crackdown on the tests, which contribute to what are known here as "selective abortions." The campaign includes an education initiative, "Care for Girls," to promote the value of both sexes.

Jing Lingli, a pregnant mother from Beijing who holds an American green card, visited a neighborhood clinic here last month, for example. She popped in for a brief checkup before going back to the United States. When she unwittingly asked the gender of the child, the answer came back, "Sorry, we can't tell you."

Boy bias seen less in cities

If there is an O'Henry twist to pop singer Na's story, it is that she and her boyfriend let slip that they prefer - a girl baby. That preference is rapidly becoming less unusual in large cities where education levels are higher. Yet ordinary Chinese also take another lesson from the Na brouhaha: how easy it is to obtain an illegal ultrasound test.

Blame for easy choiceACCESS TO? of "selective abortion" is being ascribed to loose hospital management and bribes. Zhang Weiqing, director of China's state family planning and population commission, criticized the practice of clandestine ultrasound tests. "They'll do whatever you ask, for money," Mr. Zhang said on national TV in August, speaking of some medical staff.

Given China's long history, the new gender imbalance is something recent. Chinese census figures show that in the 1950s and 1960s, boy-girl birth ratios were relatively stable and normal. Yet by 1982, boy births had climbed to 108, and they have continued to rise abnormally ever since: They hit 112 to 100 in 1990, and then rose to 116 boys per 100 girls, in 1995.

The new Chinese target for the year 2010 is to reduce the imbalance to 107 to 100.

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