Peking — In a hospital ward a baby was about to be born. Outside the room, the father-to-be and his mother waited, excited and nervous. Finally a baby's wail was heard and a nurse came out to tell the couple,''It's a girl.''
Sinking down on a bench, the old woman sighed her disappointment. As for the young father, he threw his package of eggs and red sugar onto the floor, exclaiming, ''What virtue did I lack, that heaven should deprive my house of the smell of incense?''
According to old Chinese custom, without a male heir there will be no one to offer incense to the ancestral spirits.
The above incident, reported in the Taiyuan Daily earlier this year, is part of an intensive campaign by the Chinese news media against the traditional belief that boy babies are preferable to girl babies.
The Taiyuan Daily did not say what the new parents did with their baby. But a Peking newspaper, the Guangming Daily, told in a front-page story Jan. 12 of a father who smothered his unwanted girl baby, then threw her into the river. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment.
In the same issue, a reader from a commune in Jiangsu Province reported that cases of abandoned girl babies were increasing in her district. Some were left in fields, others under bridges, still others in public toilets, the reader reported.
More recently the Nanfang Daily of Canton reported that in one county of Guangdong Province more than 130 cases of female infanticide took place last year, while in one commune of another county, more than 80 such cases took place between January and October last year. This suggests that if extended to Guangdong Province as a whole, the statistics may be reaching alarming proportions.
''In the suburbs of Canton,'' the newspaper said in its issue of Feb. 7, ''there are even witches and sorcerers who cheat and undermine birth control by holding feudalistic and superstitious ceremonies after killing girl babies, alleging that by so doing they can get the wretched parents to produce boy babies.''
The newspaper said that in some rural areas a basin full of water is placed in the room where the mother is giving birth so that if the baby is a girl, it may be drowned immediately. After detailing other means of getting rid of unwanted girl babies, the paper continues: ''What is more surprising is that some cadres in the countryside even support and sympathize with such criminal acts, saying that 'people naturally want a boy, not a girl, since they are told that they may only have one child.' ''
Female infanticide and mistreatment of mothers of unwanted girl babies are obviously of concern to China's leadership, for Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang himself drew attention to the practice in his marathon speech on the five-year plan to the National People's Congress last Nov. 30.
''We must, in particular, protect infant girls and their mothers,'' Mr. Zhao said. ''The whole society should resolutely condemn the activities of female infanticide and maltreatment of the mothers, and the judicial departments should resolutely punish the offenders according to law.''
Female infanticide was a feature of feudal China, where boys were prized and girls despised. When the communist regime came to power in 1949, it vigorously fought this as well as other feudalistic practices, and there is general agreement that under the People's Republic the position of women has been vastly improved.
The revival of the practice is linked to a drastic population-control campaign the government has been waging for the past three years. China's population is already more than 1 billion, and to keep this population from increasing beyond 1.2 billion in the next 20 years the government is energetically pushing a movement to keep couples from having more than one child.
The idea of female equality may have been gaining ground in China during the past 30 years. But in rural areas, if a couple is allowed to have only one child , the determination to have a boy is very strong. From time to time travelers in rural areas report that they are again seeing female infants floating in the rivers or left abandoned in the fields.
The government must be in a quandary. It has commendably refrained from sweeping the whole unhappy situation under the rug and is vigorously combatting the idea that girls are less desirable than boys. It gives special allowances to families with only one child. It gives them priority in health care and education. If the only child is a girl, when she marries she may ask her husband to come live with her parents instead of going to her husband's family. And her offspring may take her surname, not that of her husband.
It is not absolutely forbidden to have two children, but permission is difficult to obtain. It is usually granted only under strictly defined circumstances - for instance, if the first child was born deformed. This, in turn, has led to horrifying cases of parents who deliberately mutilate their girl babies so they can try again for a son.
And although there is a substantial penalty to be paid if couples do have a second child, the government's economic incentive policies have brought so much prosperity to the countryside that many peasants simply do not care. A commune official outside Peking complained to a recent visitor that peasants gladly paid stiff fines - hundreds of yuan - for the privilege of having another child.
Yet overall China's population figures are grim. Peasants account for four-fifths of China's population, and these peasants now have less than one-third of an acre of arable land per worker - half the amount they had in 1949. Pressure on food and on employment inexorably grows, and unless the population is kept under drastic control all the government's plans for modernization and for a modest increase in living standards by the year 2000 will come to nought.
For the government, thinking of China's population as a whole, one child per family is not a figure drawn out of a bureaucratic hat but a desperately needed goal.