The city tabloids loved it when Chinese pop singer Na Ying got pregnant this spring. But the real buzz came once it leaked that Ms. Na, who lives with a famous former soccer player, took an ultrasound exam and let on that she is expecting a boy.
Gossip columns ran side by side with official editorials stating that Ms. Na's ultrasound was illegal - even if done only for curiosity.
Na's test came amid new efforts in China, including a ban on ultrasound tests, to reduce the country's increasing gender imbalance. The "one child" policy and an old cultural preference for male heirs have encouraged use of ultrasounds to identify and abort female fetuses.
In the past two decades in China, female births have declined markedly compared with male births. The official figure - which some say is slightly low - is 117 boys for every 100 girls, based on a 2000 census. In ordinary populations, the split is closer to 104 boys for every 100 girls. Skewed sex ratios are also appearing elsewhere in Asia, particularly India, where the ratio in the state of Punjab is 126 to 100. A tilt toward male births is also beginning to be 126 to 100. A tilt toward male births is also beginning to be seen in the Caucasus and parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe.
In the case of China, social scientists are talking about a future in which 15 percent of men won't have wives. According to Asia expert Nicholas Eberstadt, the trend, termed the "marriage squeeze," is an anthropological phenomenon partly due to China's "one child" policy that began in 1978 with the intent of slowing growth in the world's most populous country.
"The world has never before seen the likes of the bride shortage that will be unfolding in China in the decades ahead," writes Mr. Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent study, "Power and Population in Asia."
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."
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.
The one-child policy is often overlooked in Chinese rural areas where tradition is strong, and so is the desire for sons who can do heavy labor.
Studies infer that the practice of selective abortions among families having second and third children run far higher. For second children the ratios are roughly 151 to 100, and about 159 to 100 for a third child.
Over the past year, China has experimented with a program in rural areas of 13 provinces that rewards aging parents who participate loyally in the "one child" policy or who have no son. Parents over age 60 who have no son, or just one child, or two daughters, receive 1,200 yuan, or $150, a year. By next year, state media report, the program will be adopted nationwide, though sources for the huge funding involved have not been identified.
At least one new Western scholarly analysis suggests that a dramatic gender imbalance could have negative consequences for China's social health. "Bare Branches," a study by Valerie Hudson of Brigham Young University and Andrea den Boer of the University of Kent, argues that vast differences in gender balances could bring a tinderbox of social tension and even violent disruptions that would have political implications.
It is true, sources say, that in many places outside urban areas in China, not having a wife is a source to men of personal shame and anger. The authors suggest that vast numbers of men without strong family ties are potential sources of gang activity and violent crime.
A number of Chinese scholars have pooh-poohed the idea of social instability as a result of a potential "bachelor nation." The question of too many bachelors in China got official sanction on Internet sites this summer and was discussed. One participant felt the scarcity of women would give them far more power in Chinese society.
"This is a harbinger of a matriarchal era," said the commentator, writing into the popular Tianya Club, an online message board.