ANHUI PROVINCE, China- On a muggy afternoon, a 3-year-old Chinese girl stands poised on the bank of a muddy pond at the family farm. Tiny ponytails sprout from her head.
The branch that doubles as her fishing pole arches toward the water, but she grips it tightly. Her big black eyes survey the ripples and reflections in the pond, as she waits in silence for the promised fish to bite.
The family calls her Xiao Meimei, which means "little sister." But according to official reproductive policy in the People's Republic of China, Xiao Meimei should never have been born.
First instituted in 1979, the Chinese "Planned Birth" policy targeted population growth as an obstacle to economic modernization. As China aggressively pursued market reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, top birth-control officials concurrently established a strict fertility regime.
In July 1979, Vice-Premier Chen Muhua-the leading birth-control official of the time-announced that "parents having one child will be encouraged, and strict measures will be enforced to control the birth of two or more babies."
In the West, the policy became known as the "one-child policy," a reference to the single-birth limitation in urban areas.
But China's fertility regime is far from monolithic. According to a March 2005 report written by Wang Feng and published by the East-West Center, the complexity of the policy "has come to resemble that of the U.S. tax code."
The one-child requirement does apply to urban areas (such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin) and rural areas with urban cores. Wang, an associate professor at the University of California--Irvine, estimates that these two categories together comprise 35 percent of the Chinese population.
In rural areas, where 54 percent of the population resides, the "1.5 children" policy applies: Couples are permitted to have a second child if the first child is a daughter.
Other exemptions relate to ethnic minorities, residents of especially impoverished areas, and couples who are themselves only children.
But the litany of exceptions didn't apply to Xiao Meimei, who already has an older brother. Rather than choose to abort, Xiao Meimei's mother rented an apartment in a nearby town and hid the pregnancy.
When she returned home with a baby girl, she told the neighbors Xiao Meimei was adopted.
According to her aunt, Diana Wong, Xiao Meimei's story is far from unique in the rural provinces of "real China."
"In rural areas, many people want to have as many [children] as possible," said Wong (not her real name, to protect her from government reprisal), who was born in Anhui but now works as an accountant in Shanghai.
Even in the provincial villages of Anhui-where foreigners are a novelty and indoor plumbing nonexistent-Planned Birth policy reminders are everywhere. The signs, scrawled in large red characters, appear on buildings, under windows, along walls: "Implement policies of rewards and incentives." "Rewards for family planning and penalties for extra births."
While Beijing directs and encourages birth control, local Birth Planning Commissions implement the policy in each township. By the late 1990s, Wang estimates, the birth-control planning system claimed 300,000 government employees.
On the urbanized east coast of China, birth-control policy is largely self-enforcing, Wong claims.
"In the city, women volunteer to have abortions," she said. "The second child means you have to pay more attention, more money, and probably not have your own career."
When Wong recently attempted to hire a tax accountant who discovered she was pregnant, the woman simply deferred her employment offer until June 1 to complete and recover from the abortion.
Quite simply, Wong said, "Educated people don't want to have two children."
Without a hukou-the official residency permit-access to education and health care for an unregistered child in the city remains limited. But in the country, unregistered children often work on the family farm instead.
Thus, the economic incentives that control the birthrate in Shanghai are reversed in Anhui. "The ongoing cost to have a child is very small compared to the city," Wong said.
And despite the army of bureaucrats, whose own political careers often depend on effective birth-control enforcement, the social pressure to bear Chinese sons has not yet disappeared.
"If you don't have a boy, you should feel guilty for your family, because you cannot pass on your surname," Wong said.
As a result, the imbalance in China's sex ratio-defined as the proportion of live male births to live female births-has continued to climb. The sex ratio in industrialized countries ranges from 104 to 106 boys per 100 girls.
In 1982, the sex ratio in China was 108.5 boys to every 100 girls-already at the edge of the natural baseline. But the figure rose to 114.1 boys per 100 girls in 1990, and 117.1 to 100 in 1995. By the year 2000, according to Wang, the census reported a sex ratio of 119.2 boys per 100 girls.
A September 2005 report by Therese Hesketh, Li Lu, and Zhu Wei Xing, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, confirms regional variation in the sex ratio. In rural provinces like Guangdong, Qinghai, and Anhui, the imbalance can reach 130 boys to every 100 girls.
What happens to the missing girls remains difficult to document. According to demographers like Hesketh, "Sex-selective abortion after ultrasonography undoubtedly accounts for a large proportion of the decline in female births."
Hesketh, Lu, and Xing acknowledge that actual statistics are "impossible to obtain." But while sex-selective abortion is illegal, they say, it is "known to be widely carried out, helped by a burgeoning private sector."
Other Chinese girls born illegally-like Xiao Meimei-may simply go unreported.
Even adjusted for potential underreporting, according to Wang, China's fertility rate is likely 1.5 to 1.6 births per woman (bpw)-well below the replacement rate of 2.1 bpw.
Barring changes to the fertility policy, Wang predicts that China's population will peak within 20 years at 1.37 billion. After the year 2025, the population will begin to shrink.
"At the same time," Wang says, "China's aging process will accelerate, with the share of its population aged 65 and over rising to 14 percent in 2025, 20 percent in 2035, and more than 24 percent in 2050."
Amid growing concern about the aging Chinese work force, the families of Anhui may prove part of the solution.
Despite the risk of discovery, Wong said, Xiao Meimei's parents will probably have another child-making Xiao Meimei a big sister as well.
"They like children," Wong said. "They like boys."