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Chinese grandmas sing the party line

No stone is left unturned to spread China's message that, for the good of the country, couples should have only one child. A group of grandmothers in a Shanghai home for the elderly put on a short singing play for a group of visiting journalists and population experts recently. The theme: One child is good. More are not.

A cheerful 70-year-old soprano in jacket and trousers took the part of a grandmother who wanted a grandson to go along with the granddaughter she already had. Other women crowded around her, urging her to think again.

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``A granddaughter is as good as a grandson,'' sang one.

``Think of your country, so overcrowded, and not just of your own family,'' sang another.

``Think of future generations and how they can live best,'' trilled a third to musical accompaniment.

``I don't care if I have to pay more tax if my daughter has another child,'' sang the main character. ``We are well off, I can afford it, and I'm impatient.''

``But,'' chorused the others, ``your family's quality of life will be reduced. . . . Social services will be strained. . . . Give up your old idea that a boy is preferable to a girl and accept the fact that boys and girls have equal social status.''

It was hardly Irving Berlin, but dramatic tension rose in the small room. The actresses pleaded. The heroine pondered. Finally, she gave in. ``There is reason in what you say,'' she sang. ``I have changed my mind.''

Loud applause from our group. Smiles all around. Another facet of China's drastic effort, begun in 1982, to slow down its population growth had been demonstrated.

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The grandmothers launched into a rousing English-language chorus of ``You Are My Sunshine,'' and the show was over.

Yet for all the publicity, some mothers do have second babies, especially in the countryside, where economic reforms have sent incomes soaring.

Dutch journalist Willem van Kemenade, Far Eastern correspondent of the newspaper Handelsblad, recently spent some time in the village of Zhao Yuan in Shandong Province, where his Chinese wife was born.

One woman, he found, had had a second child without permission in 1982, by avoiding the authorities and visiting another village for long periods. Her family was fined 800 yuan ($266) -- equal to the annual income of many rural families.

Since 1982, village officials report, having more than one child has become much harder. Married women are required to visit their local hospitals every two months for pregnancy checks.

However, if the first child is a girl, couples are now permitted to try for a boy eight years later -- but only in villages, not in towns or cities.

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