One-child policy makes girls second-class citizens
ASIA LETTER: Xiao Wei could be the mother of two daughters by now. But shame and fear of the authorities would have made life unbearable for the farmer's wife from an impoverished part of Anhui Province in east China.
So she gave her first daughter away at birth, and aborted her second when an ultrasound scan showed that the foetus was female.
It was far more important for Xiao Wei to have a boy, and when an ultrasound confirmed her third pregnancy was a male, she carried the baby to full term.
Her husband and extended family celebrated with a party on the day of the birth.
Xiao Wei and her husband dream of sending their son, now aged four, to college and they are saving for an expensive kindergarten.
In a newspaper interview recently, she said that it was the duty of a woman to bear a boy. Refusing to give her real name for fear of reprisal from the authorities, she said: "A woman without a son will be cursed by her mother-in-law and laughed at by the village." With China's strict one-child policy, Xiao Wei was not going to take a chance on having a girl.
The 32-year-old mother admits she does sometimes think of her two other children - the one she gave away and the one she never gave birth to. "I miss my first daughter very much but this is the way it has to be," she says.
China's notorious one-child policy, aimed at slowing the growth of the country's 1.2 billion population, has made Chinese girls second-class citizens.
Since the policy was introduced in 1979, the World Health Organisation estimates that as many as 50 million Chinese girls are "missing".
They have either been abandoned, aborted, murdered or simply not registered at birth. Girls fill China's 900 state-run orphanages.
Figures from China's 2000 census, published last week, reveal that the one-child policy is now presenting the authorities with a new problem - gender imbalance.
They show that for every 100 baby girls born in China, there are 117 male births. In wealthier parts of the country the imbalance is even higher - 100 female births to 135 male. The norm should be 107 boys for every 100 girls.
The skewed sex ratio is worrying, with an estimated 70 million more males than females in the country.
Officials in Beijing fear the imbalance will "damage social and economic stability" in the future, and encourage the trade in kidnapped women and sex slavery.
The lopsided gender ratio is already creating social strains, helping to fuel a thriving market for brides and prostitution. Men in the countryside pay handsomely for a wife - even one abducted and married off against her will.
For poor rural families in China the choice is as stark as it is cruel. To keep a girl risks public ridicule in villages where traditions favouring boys still run strong. It means couples lose their chance for an heir who will carry on the family name, look after the land and care for parents in old age.
A population expert at Peking University, Zeng Yi, said recently that sex-selective abortions account for at least a third and maybe more than half of China's so-called "missing" girls.
Ultrasound scans to determine the sex of a foetus are used all over China, (even though it is illegal to do so), and abortions are readily available for those who don't want a girl.
For women living in areas too remote or too poor for ultrasound, infanticide remains a last resort, according to a Chinese study released in January.
"Some parents consider female infanticide nothing more than a delayed abortion," said one of the authors, Zhu Chuzhu of Jiaotong University in the northern city of Xi'an.
Of 820 women from central China surveyed by the US-based Population and Development Review, 300 had abortions and more than a third of them admitted they were trying to select their offspring's sex.
Experts who have analysed the shocking new gender ratio figures say they show that almost 900,000 fewer girls were reported born last year than would be expected from natural birth rates.
The census reveals a wide variation in the male-female ratio for live births between China's provinces. Five provinces show more than 125 male births for every 100 females, with the percentage reaching 130 in Guangdong and as high as 135 in Hainan.
These areas are wealthier and people can afford ultrasound tests more easily there.
Last year the low value on a female life in China was brought home to the people of Ireland when pictures of a newborn baby girl lying dead in a gutter in a town in Hunan province were published in the Irish edition of a British tabloid.
The photographs were taken by a horrified female visitor, who said the baby's naked body was still warm and it was clear she had been dumped and had just died.
Passers-by on their way to work ignored the child. Some stopped to look, then walked on. Pictures showed life going on as normal, until an elderly man eventually put the tiny body into a box and carried it away.The country was shocked and revulsed and phone lines to RTÉ Radio chat shows were hopping.
The census figures published this week are a cause for major alarm. But do you hear any political leaders in the West shouting?