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Chinese county reins in birth-rate – without a one-child limit

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At the same time, 30 million Chinese men will find no brides in 2020; a traditional preference for sons, the spread of ultrasound technology, and the one-child policy have combined to promote widespread sex-selective abortion, officials say.

With male births outnumbering female births by 118 to 100, China is storing up a "hidden danger" that will "affect social stability," a recent government report warned.

Discriminatory abortion is not a problem, though, in Yicheng, which has long applied one of the most liberal of the range of policies imposed around the country.

The "one-child policy" has in fact been much more flexible since the mid-1980s than its name suggests. While it has been strictly enforced in cities, affecting about 36 percent of the national population, parents in most rural areas – accounting for 53 percent of Chinese – are allowed a second child if their first is a girl. In a few cases, families can have three children.

"Overall, it's more of a one-and-a-half child policy," says Professor Chen.

Things are different for Yicheng's 310,000 inhabitants. Parents there can have two children, whatever the sex of their firstborn, if they adhere to certain conditions.

Men may not marry before the age of 25 and women may not before age 23 without being fined. That's three years later for both sexes than the national policy. They must also wait six years before having a second baby. If they don't, they are fined 1,200 RMB (about $160) per year early, or about 20 percent of an average couple's income in the region, says Yang Chunxiang, the family-planning boss here in Ren Wang.

"No one here is rich enough to pay that easily," she says. There have been no third children in the village since the '80s, and few whose birth didn't track the six-year gap.

"The one-child policy ran into strong opposition from people right from the start," says Liang Zhongtang, who designed Yicheng's policy. "I proposed a two-child policy to see if people still opposed that."

From his post as a teacher at the Communist Party school in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, Professor Liang quickly rallied local family planning workers to his cause.

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