Two years ago, Zhang Chuanxin and his wife could hardly hold their heads high in their village as Zhang's mother kept complaining about their failure to "carry on their family line" by having a son.
Zhang, father of two daughters in Liugou village of Huaiyuan county in east Anhui Province, however, found his life turned around in 2001 when China launched a national "care for girls" campaign to help control the gender imbalance in this world's most populous nation.
"Raising girls is as good as raising boys now," Zhang said, attributing his improvement in living standards to the local government's help, which is part of the campaign.
The changes have been great for the Zhangs since the campaign was put in place two years ago.
After Huaiyuan county was selected for the first trial of the "care for girls" campaign in 2001, Zhang was subsidized by the county family planning committee with a four-wheel vehicle for freighting services while his wife got an aid fund to grow food grains and vegetables at home.
Soon Zhang and his family built a new house, an achievement Zhang said was unimaginable two years ago when their family sheltered themselves in two decaying rooms.
Like Zhang, households with only one or two daughters in Huaiyuan county will get 2,000 yuan (some US$240) in support funds and be exempt from agricultural taxes and nine-year compulsory education fees for their daughters, a preferential treatment totaling some 30,000 yuan (US$3,600) until the girls are of marriageable age.
Officials said the "care for girls" campaign aimed to tackle the gender imbalance among newborn babies and eliminate gender discrimination against girls in many rural and underdeveloped areas.
Some Chinese demographers worry that the gender imbalance may create a havoc that will haunt the country for generations.
Although the Chinese government has banned gender selection of newborn babies by ultrasound and selective induced abortion, some doctors secretly provide such services for extra fees, sometimes as high as 1,000 yuan (US$120).
"It is difficult to know the truth because pregnant women could choose to ask for the services and then lie about it afterwards," said Zhang Shufang, head of Chu'an town of Renqiu city, northern China's Hebei Province.
Though the idea of "ladies first" is increasingly recognized inurban Chinese cities, the saying "raising a daughter is like watering someone else's fields" is deep-rooted among people in other parts of China, especially in the countryside.
In regions dominated by sex bias, illegal ultrasound scanning to determine the sex of babies in the womb is common among quite a few couples who would rather have a boy than a girl.
"The traditional Chinese thinking that men are more valuable than women dominated the country for many centuries," said Pan Guiyu, also a vice-minister of the State Population and Family Planning Commission.
"Some rural people just dumped female infants outside orphanages immediately after their birth," Pan said.
She acknowledged that 99 percent of Chinese children adopted by foreigners are girls, and boys under the age of 10 number millions more than girls of the same age.
Such sons-only ethos usually ended up in selective abortions and the most worrying statistics in China's 2000 census -- a dramatic drop in the number of newly born girls.
The census showed that for every 1,000 new-born girls there are 1,168.6 boys. In Xinyi city of southern Guangdong Province, the figure even soared to 1,432.3, much higher than the normal level of between 1,050 to 1,070.
"The imbalance of the ratio between newborn boys and girls has a negative impact on China's population structure," said Zhao Bingli, vice-minister of the State Population and Family Planning Commission.
"The gender imbalance is a new challenge population and family planning departments must face in the new era," Zhao said, urging the elimination of gender discrimination against girls beginning with pregnancy and showing more care for girls.
To solve the headache, China had launched a "care for girls" campaign nationwide to promote the idea of gender equality and improve the living standards of girls-only families through its widespread family planning network.
In provinces like Anhui, Jiangxi, Fujian, Guangdong and Hubei, local governments had resorted to comic strips to publicize care for girls and their families and the distribution of detailed lists offering free medical treatment to those girls.
Meanwhile, dictums like "men and women are born equal" and information denouncing the discrimination against girls have been added to the textbooks for rural primary schools in these provinces.
Departments of health, public security and justice also joined hands in the campaign to severely punish those who use ultrasonic scanning to determine sex in the womb and activities involving selective abortion.
In Huaiyuan county alone, police investigated 65 cases involving foetus sex test and illegal selective abortion since 2000, penalizing 50 officials and doctors while outlawing 215 unlicensed private clinics conducting ultrasonic scanning.
As part of the "care for girls" campaign, the State Population and Family Planning Commission sent a 50-member team of noted family planning workers and medical experts to lectures on reproductive health and to look into the living and health conditions of girls in the western regions.
The Chinese government has set a timetable for the year 2010 to bring the gender ratio among newborn babies back to the normal and officials said a new concept towards marriage and reproduction would take shape by then.
"I'm optimistic about that," said Zhao Bingli.
(Xinhua News Agency October 25, 2003)