The gender imbalance in China has remained at an alarmingly high ratio of 117 newborn boys for 100 girls in 2012, officials said on Tuesday.

The imbalance, which has remained far higher than the normal 103 to 107 ratio, has prompted renewed promises from the government to crack down on illegal selective abortions, while also triggering strong calls for China to discard its unpopular family planning restrictions.

According to census data released on Tuesday by the National Bureau of Statistics, the gender ratio was 117.7 newborn boys for every 100 girls in 2012, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC) have said the ratio declined slightly – by 0.08 – last year. It described the figure as “still higher than the warning level”. “The country faces an arduous task in fixing its gender imbalance,” an unnamed NPFPC official told Xinhua.

The report said China’s gender imbalance had widened after ultrasound examinations were widely available in the 1980s. The ratio reached a record 120.56 in 2008, the report added.

Wang Xia, minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC), was quoted as saying in an earlier interview with State media that the government would crack down strongly on illegal gender tests and selective abortions, and would introduce a system to have real-name registration of newborns.

In 2011, the government had punished 13,000 people following a campaign to monitor selective abortions, she said. The government has announced a target to bring down the imbalance to 115, from the current 117, by 2015.

The widening gender imbalance, coupled with concerns over China’s ageing labour force, has renewed calls for the government to relax family planning policies. Enforced in the early 1980s, and known widely as the “one-child policy” although the rules are more complex, the measures have been seen as a major reason behind the fast-widening gender imbalance.

Ma Jiantang, head of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), said at a press conference on Friday that the government would need to come up with “an appropriate and scientific” family planning policy to address the ageing labour force.

According to census data released by the NBS on Friday, the number of working-age people in China fell for the first time in its recent history, by 3.45 million, to 937.27 million.

“We need to pay serious attention to this,” Mr. Ma was quoted as saying by Xinhua. “I can’t deny that I’m worried about this problem,” he said.

Ms. Wang of the NPFPC, however, told a conference in Beijing on Monday that the one-child policy was unlikely to be relaxed considerably in the near-term. “Maintaining a low birth rate remains a top priority in 2013 and beyond. But policy implementation has to fit into local situations,” she was quoted as saying by the official China Daily.

The government says the policy prevented 400 million additional births since the 1980s, and spared China a burden on resources it could not afford to bear. The policy now covers two-thirds of the population. In rural areas, families can have a second child if their first-born is a daughter, while members of China’s 55 minority groups are also exempt from the restrictions.

Calls have grown from scholars for the policy to be relaxed, not only for demographic reasons but also because they are seen by a growing number of Chinese scholars as violating fundamental human rights. While forced abortions are less common now than in the 1980s, they are still carried out by authorities in villages in some provinces, while the heavy fines imposed on violators have been widely criticised as being inhumane.

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