When Aiming, a young Chinese woman, was expecting her third child in 1978, she knew it was doomed to be forcibly aborted. Desperate to save it, she and her husband hatched an elaborate plot. After escaping from her village, she spent the last months of her pregnancy in a hideaway near the mine where her husband worked. Aiming's defiance of China's brutal anti-birth policy is told by Chi An, a relative, in A Mother's Ordeal. Chi An had herself been an ardent party activist. As a nurse, she had zealously enforced the 'one couple, one child policy', tracking down and aborting women pregnant with 'illegal children', and even helping to administer lethal injections to babies whose mothers managed to carry them full term. But distressed by her work, she went to live in America, where she had a second child. Fearful of returning to China, she and her family were eventually granted asylum

When Aiming became pregnant again in October 1978, she knew that she could not openly carry her baby to term. She would have to conceal her condition as long as possible, then go into hiding.

As soon as the weather turned cold, she donned a bulky winter coat two sizes too big for her. She wore it indoors and out for the next six months.

It was not until early May, when the arrival of warm weather forced her into cooler clothes, that she was found out. 'The local head of the Women's Federation was very unhappy to learn that I was already seven months along,' Aiming laughed. 'She immediately designated me a 'primary target for remedial measures'.'

Months before, Aiming and her husband had devised a plan for this moment. A room had been rented in a remote hamlet, and stocked with clothes, bedding and other essentials. This would be Aiming's hideout until she gave birth.

She had planned her escape route carefully, but had not reckoned with how quickly the Women's Federation would move. The night before Aiming was to travel to the hideout, she and Mother Wei were awakened at 1am by someone banging on the front door.

They looked out through the bars of their bedroom window to see the Women's Federation head at the door. She was backed by five militiamen armed with rifles. A horse drawn cart stood down the street. Aiming knew they had come to take her to the commune medical clinic, by force if necessary.

'I bolted for the back door,' she recalled, 'wearing only my nightshirt. Behind me I heard Mother Wei loudly arguing with the head of the Women's Federation through the door: 'What do you want at such an hour?'

'Open the door] This is a matter of state business]'

'I ran across the alleyway and hid myself quickly inside a pigsty. I did not want to wake up the village dogs. I waited and listened to see what would happen when they found out that I was missing.'

As soon as Mother Wei opened the door a crack, the militiamen forced their way inside. 'Where is she?' Aiming heard the head of the Women's Federation shout.

'I don't know,' Mother Wei's voice came back coolly. 'She left some time ago.'

'We'll see about that,' the official responded. 'Search the bedrooms,' she ordered the militiamen. There was the sound of trunks being opened and furniture being moved.

After a minute the voice of the official could be heard again. 'Where did she go?' she shouted, angry that her quarry had eluded her. Mother Wei's response was too soft to make out, but the official's strident voice could be heard loud and clear: 'In that case, we will wait here for her until she returns.'

With the squad of militiamen apparently encamped in the house for the night, Aiming knew she could not stay in the pigsty. Besides, she was being tormented by great clouds of mosquitoes.

She considered setting out for her distant hiding place under cover of darkness, but abandoned the idea for fear that the roads were being patrolled. Instead, she decided, she would leave the confines of the village and conceal herself in the surrounding paddy fields.

Aiming slipped out of the pigsty and moved quietly down the alleyway, taking care to remain in the shadows on that moonlit night. In a minute she had passed out of the village on to the narrow pathways that divide the paddies, placing her feet carefully on the muddy, slippery ridges to avoid a fall.

She came to a small rock outcropping about 100 yards from the village - close enough to see what the militiamen were up to, but providing enough cover to avoid being seen - and squatted down to wait for the dawn.

'There were even more mosquitoes in the rice paddies than in the pigsty,' Aiming recalled wryly. 'They bit me until I was covered with welts. Maddened by the constant bites, I got down from the rock into the paddy itself, squatting down in the cool water.

'I smeared thick mud over the exposed parts of my body. The cool wetness helped to relieve some of the itching, but as soon as it dried the mosquitoes would return, biting me through the layer of mud. I felt a tickling on my legs and kept having to slap off hungry leeches. I was miserable, hungry and tired. I refused to give in to self-pity, though. I was not going to give myself up, no matter what happened.'

She gave me a fierce look that seemed out of character on her usually friendly face. 'If they discovered me, I was ready to fight them to the death for the life of my son.'

Aiming hid in the fields for two long days, until the militiamen grew tired of waiting and drove off in their cart, back to the commune. That evening she dragged herself back to the house. Mother Wei was shocked by her appearance.

Most of her body was covered with a thick layer of dried mud. In the places where the mud had cracked and fallen off, great red welts stood out on her skin through streaks of dirt. 'With my great big belly and my dirt-matted hair and face, I must have looked like some alien creature,' Aiming recalled with a smile.

She hid inside Mother Wei's house that night and the following day, resting and regaining her strength. Then she set out under cover of darkness for her hiding place.

It took her most of the night to walk to the county capital. From there she took the morning bus to the market town nearest to her destination, and covered the last five miles through the hills to the hamlet on foot.

Her husband, who had received word through a friend that she was coming, was waiting for her. She collapsed into his arms, exhausted but triumphant.

For several days after Aiming's disappearance, the head of the Women's Federation busied herself striking at other 'primary targets for remedial measures'. Nine women - all five or more months pregnant - were arrested during successful midnight raids and taken to the commune medical clinic for abortion and sterilisation. Then she turned her attention back to the missing Aiming.

Having failed to capture her quarry by surprise, the Women's Federation head resorted to bullying. She and two assistants invaded Mother Wei's house like an occupying army, arriving early each morning and staying until late each night. They took turns browbeating her about Aiming.

'If you don't tell your daughter-in-law to come back, we will sit here until she does.'

'We have never seen anyone with skin as thick as yours, but we will wear you down.'

'Unless you tell us where your daughter-in-law is hiding, we will have to hold a struggle meeting to criticise you.'

At other times they would threaten her with heavy fines. 'You are responsible for our salary. For every day we spend on your daughter-in-law's case, you owe the party six yuan. You are also responsible for feeding us.'

Mother Wei did her best to ignore her unwelcome visitors, saying nothing in response to their taunts and threats. Nor did she refuse outright their demands to be fed. But at mealtimes she prepared only enough food for herself and her two granddaughters, which they hurriedly gulped down in the kitchen. Her visitors had no choice but to take their meals elsewhere.

Sixty-five days after the officials had come in the dead of night for her and her unborn baby, Aiming went into labour. Assisted by a midwife, who was bribed into helping with the delivery, she gave birth to a healthy 8lb boy.

As soon as Mother Wei received the glad tidings, she broke her long silence. 'I have a grandson,' she proudly told the Women's Federation officials. 'There is nothing more you can do. Now you can leave.'

Without a word, the three officials got up and walked out the door. But the head of the Women's Federation, who had earlier vowed that the Wei family would pay for the trouble it had caused, soon proved that she had not been making empty threats.

A few days later Mother Wei received a bill from the Women's Federation for 390 yuan for 65 days' 'work'. Aiming's husband paid it promptly, though it took all their savings. Still, he feared that the matter might not end there. ' 'Don't come home yet,' he told me,' Aiming recalled.

Word of the Wei family's new arrival spread swiftly. In normal circumstances, Mother Wei's central room would quickly have filled with callers. But there was a rumour that the Wei house was being watched, and this time most people stayed home.

The few close kinsmen willing to brave the wrath of the authorities waited until after dusk before knocking on the back door - and after a hurried visit, they left the same way.

When the next few weeks passed without incident, Aiming's husband decided that it was safe to bring his wife and son back to the village. By design, they arrived on the eve of his son's one-month birthday.

The following day virtually the entire village poured into Mother Wei's for the full-month feast. Aiming and her husband moved proudly among the guests, showing off their tiny, pink-cheeked son. Mother Wei followed close behind, handing a scarlet-coloured egg to each of the assembled guests so that they would 'have a share in our good fortune'.

''Full-month wine' flowed freely, and the house rang with toasts of 'Gongxi] Gongxi]' late into the night.

Thus was the youngest member of the Wei clan officially welcomed into the family. Only the local party secretary and two members of the local Women's Federation boycotted the feast.

After this show of support, Aiming and her husband hoped they would be left in peace. But the Women's Federation was not finished with them. A week after Aiming returned home, the militiamen came again, in broad daylight. Aiming's husband was at work.

'I thought they were coming for my son,' she recalled. 'I gave him to Mother Wei in a panic and told her to escape out the back door. But it was me they were after. They grabbed me and put me on the cart. I was so surprised that I put up no resistance.'

Aiming was taken under guard to the commune medical clinic. There she was given a tubal ligation the same day.

'Do you regret not putting up more of a struggle?' I asked. 'After all, you can never have any more children.'

'At first I was upset,' she confirmed. 'They carted me off like a pig to the slaughterhouse. But then (she paused in mid-sentence and looked down at the pink-cheeked little boy playing happily at her feet, then she looked up at me), I thought of our little treasure. I decided that it was not too high a price to pay.'

One billion Chinese, and rising

In the early days of Communist rule in China there was no talk of limiting the population; Mao Tse-tung seemed to glory in the sheer numbers mobilised by his revolution. But well before his death in 1976, official policy had swung in favour of birth control.

The catalyst for the 'one- child' policy was the 1979 census, which showed that the number of Chinese was growing much faster than the authorities had realised. Faced with the imminent rise of the population above 1 billion, the government panicked, according to an academic. A conference recommended stringent family planning, backed by penalties, to prevent the total reaching 1.2 billion before 2000. The simplest way to achieve this appeared to be to limit every couple to one child.

Apart from the inhumanity needed to enforce it, the policy has thrown up many unforeseen problems. The desire for a son is so strong, particularly in rural China, that girls are often disposed of. This disparity is clear in the statistics: 105 to 106 boys are usually born for every 100 girls, but the past three censuses have recorded more than 110 boys aged 12 months or less for every 100 girls.

Carried to its logical conclusion, the policy will result in every child having two parents and four grandparents. Critics are already complaining that China is bringing up a generation of spoilt 'little emperors' (there are even slimming camps for overweight children). Many Chinese wonder what kind of society they will have in the next century: will it abound with fat, self-centred young men looking in vain for wives?

The 'one-child' policy has encountered less opposition in the cities, where couples do not feel the same pressure to have a son. Resistance has been much stronger among peasant farmers, and since the mid-Eighties the authorities in many areas have given up enforcing the rule strictly. While families can have their homes pulled down if they fail to comply, an unofficial 'two-child' policy operates in much of China, particularly if the first child is a girl. Fines are imposed only for subsequent births - and many couples can afford to pay, thanks to the rise in rural incomes.

'The authorities simply don't have the resources to force everyone into line,' said an expert. 'It is one area in which the people have forced those above them to change their plans.' Recently the Chinese government admitted, without further comment, that the population would probably reach 1.2 billion this year.

'A Mother's Ordeal', by Steven W Mosher, is published on 24 March by Little, Brown & Co (UK), pounds 16.99.

(Photograph omitted)