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Children take a nap at a kindergarten in Zhengzhou in this 2006 photo. World Bank researchers found that China should have had 1.2 million more baby girls than were actually born in 2008.STRINGER SHANGHAI/Reuters

Among developing nations, China is modernizing by leaps and bounds -- its economy still growing fast, its railways converting to high speed, its road networks growing, and skyscrapers lining its city streets.

Yet there is one area in which China is still lagging desperately behind even the poorest nations, and that is gender balance.

The World Bank's 2012 World Development report, released this week, shows that of the nearly four million women "missing" from the world's population each year -- lost as aborted female fetuses, as babies who die or are killed at birth, as children without access to proper health care or as women dying in childbirth -- more than one million of them are missing from China.

World Bank researchers found that China should have had 1.2 million more baby girls than were actually born in 2008. Put another way, according to China's own census last year, its birth rate is now an alarmingly distorted 118 boys per 100 girls.

The result, economists in and outside of China have warned, is a new generation that will struggle to marry and have children, likely contributing to social unrest, as well as an aging and shrinking work force exacerbated by the decline in the overall birth rate. Even the propensity of Chinese families to save rather than spend has been attributed, at least in part, to this imbalance, as families buy real estate to try to improve their only sons' chances at marriage.

"It has some important social consequences and economic consequences down the line," said report co-director Ana Revenga in a videoconference briefing.

The imbalance comes in striking contrast to China's other, more successful efforts to improve the life of the poor. Clean water and better sanitation has reduced infant mortality rates, and China's maternal mortality rates and life expectancy are similar to many countries in Eastern Europe. The country boasts a literacy rate of 95.9 per cent and its own census data shows some 119.6 million Chinese hold a university degree.

The preference for boys, however, persists largely unchecked, though it has been weakened somewhat in rural areas by returning migrant workers, and generally by rising income among adult women.

Increasing the adult women's share of the household income by just 10 per cent has also led to a one percentage point increase in the fraction of surviving girls, researchers in China found, and increased years of schooling for both boys and girls.

The report's authors acknowledge the Chinese government is trying to address the problem -- among other things, by making it illegal for ultrasound technicians and doctors to tell parents the sex of a fetus, and by relaxing the country's one-child policy in some cases. But they say it will take a wider effort to change societal expectations, and cite the case of South Korea, where a preference for boys was largely reversed by government campaigns to change long-held beliefs, assisted by a modernizing and industrializing nation in which women were afforded much more opportunity.

"It is a tough problem to solve," Ms. Revenga said.

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