LIKE MOST women in rural China, Chen Guohan's wife wasn't content with the one child she was allowed under the state population plan. With her only child, a boy, set to enter primary school the following year, and Chen himself, a truck driver, on the road much of the time, she wanted another baby at home.

Sitting in the living room of his modest house in Zhuhai, a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Guangdong Province designated for foreign investment, her husband recalled that he at first tried to dissuade her, reminding her of the fines, meetings, and other pressures to which they would be subjected if she conceived a second child.

Chen's wife found a midwife who, for a fee of $20, stiff by Chinese standards, was willing to perform an illegal procedure: Remove the intrauterine device (IUD) that had been automatically inserted following the birth of her first child. After an anxious wait of several months, she became pregnant in September 1986.

By staying home most of the time, Chen's wife was able to hide her pregnancy from the population control workers for several months. Her growing reclusiveness eventually made them suspicious, however, and they ordered her to go in for a pelvic examination.

Chen explained in blunt terms what that meant. "If the examination revealed that my wife was pregnant, they would order her to have an abortion." So, like millions of Chinese whose plans for a second child have aroused official ire, the Chens opted for "childbirth on the run." His wife would go to live with a cousin in a neighboring county until she gave birth.

Though Chen was expecting censure, he was taken aback by its intensity. Each day at work the vice director of his factoryhounded him for information about his wife's whereabouts. Each evening at home he was visited by a birth control delegation. After two months the factory director concluded that Chen could not be broken. He told the factory's dozen purchasing agents and sales representatives to make inquiries in the towns and villages of the surrounding district, promising a bonus to whoever located the missing wife. Chen's wife was found and brought back in February of this year. She was seven months pregnant.

The factory director ordered her confined to the factory dormitory. At least one member of the birth control committee was with her at all times, badgering her to accept an abortion. Separated from her husband, too distraught to eat and sleep, she accepted the inevitable.

She was immediately taken to the local medical clinic and given an injection of an abortifacient drug. This shot, universally called a "poison shot" in China, causes the fetus to be born dead or dying 24 to 48 hours later. "They didn't even tell me she was in the clinic until they had already given her the shot," Chen ended ruefully.

The Chen's are only one of tens of millions of couples whose desire for another child has pitted them against a state bent on curbing China's population. The aggressive drive to enforce the "one couple, one child" limit intrudes on the intimate affairs of the family to a degree not seen in China since the Cultural Revolution.

Each year since 1980, the Chinese population control program has prevented millions of births, scoring impressive statistical gains. For six years in succession, China has held its population increase rate to below 1.5 percent, less than half the Third World average. Its population currently stands at 1.057 billion.

I had been an eyewitness to the birth control program in its opening stages in 1979 when I was living in a village in Guangdong province.From the beginning, Chinese officials painted themselves as driven by stark necessity. Unless a cap is put on the population, they argued, the country will remain mired in poverty for generations to come.

Although the quotas were to be met "voluntarily," the tone of the program was coercive from the first. In my village alone, 18 women resisted the two-child quota and were coerced into having abortions.

After leaving China in mid-1980, I published a detailed account of what I had seen. The Chinese authorities retaliated by branding me an "international spy," and charging that I had bribed officials. The Chinese did not deny the evidence of coercion, but claimed that it was a problem only in a few remote villages. Privately they demanded of Stanford University, where I was close to earning a doctorate in anthropology, that I be "dealt with severely." The university subsequently expelled me, citing an "erosion of the relationship of trust between faculty and student."

Chinese officials have consistently maintained that, despite the overzealousness of some control workers, education and criticism of the offending cadres has largely resolved the problem in recent years. "We oppose coercive measures of any kind," said Liang Jimin of the State Planning Commission at a June press conference in Peking. "Even among women who are pregnant with a second child, not all will go for an abortion." Chinese officials point to slightly higher birth rates in 1986 as evidence that strictures against second births have been relaxed.

Yet not everyone finds the official protests of increased "voluntarism" convincing. Skeptics include demographer John Aird, formerly chief of the China desk at the U.S. Bureau of the Census, who testified before Congress in February of this year that "The Chinese program remains highly coercive."

Such contradictions made me anxious to see for myself when I returned to China in June of this year. What, if any, changes had occurred in the program?

In Zhuhai, the booming SEZ where the Chen family lives, even illiterate peasant women understand what has seldom been clear to outside observers: The "one couple, one child" rule is not uniformly applied across China.

"In the villages," one woman, echoed by many others, said to me, "they sometimes let you have two children. Here in the SEZ they never let you have more than one. When they set up the SEZ a few years ago they made us all city people. They are much stricter with city people."

Just how strict "they" are is clear from Central Committee Directive No. 7. Promulgated in 1983 to clear up widespread confusion over the policy on childbirth, it reads: "All state officials, workers and employees, and urban residents, except for special cases which must be approved, may have only one child per couple . . . .Those women who have already given birth to one child must be fitted with IUDs, couples who already have two children must undergo sterilization of either the husband or the wife, and women pregnant outside of the plan must adopt remedial measures {i.e., abortion} as soon as possible."" The Chinese Communist Party thus explicitly forbade the 20 percent of the population that lives in the cities from having second children, except in rare circumstances.

When the SEZ was created in 1983, the villagers -- accustomed to the more relaxed policies of rural China, where couples are allowed to have their first child when they choose and to apply for a second -- rebelled. Repulsed in their effort to reeducate the population into accepting the new limits, local officials dropped all pretense of "voluntarism."

Villagers recalled 1984-85 as a chilling time, when expectant mothers cried for help as they were dragged out of their homes into waiting vans and cried for help as they were taken away. These vehicles became known as "pig basket vans," after the large wicker "pig baskets" in which pigs are carted to the slaughterhouse.

It was only last year that this assault on the family subsided. The "pig basket vans" can still be seen sitting behind district offices, but they have been put to other purposes. "Nearly all women of childbearing age have been sterilized," one population worker explained, "So there is no need to deal with them." Women who remain fertile are, for the most part, deterred by the example of couples like the Chens who have been forcibly brought to heel.

Even within the controlled confines of Zhuhai, however, there are occasionally still couples who manage to bring a second child to term. Wang Dahung and his wife work in a state-run retail store. As in the case of the Chens, Wang's wife paid a midwife to illegally remove her IUD and conceived a child. She was able, however to avoid agents sent to find her and had her baby delivered outside a hospital by a midwife.

The Party Committee of the department store, however, fined the Wangs 3,000 renminbi, an amount equivalent to two years income. Wang's monthly income was also slashed by more than two-thirds. He was allowed to retain his meager base income, but he forfeited his SEZ cost-of-living allowance, expense allowance, bonus and the chance to earn overtime pay. The Wangs have family members in Hong Kong willing to help with the bills, Mr. Wang told me, otherwise they would starve.

There is a final note to their story. Mrs. Wang, having borne a second child, was told that under the regulations she must be sterilized. This she steadfastly refused to do. So one day the "pig basket van" pulled up in front of her house. She was taken to the hospital against her will and given a tubal ligation. She was still in the hospital recovering from this unwanted operation when I spoke with her husband.

Outside of cities, towns and SEZs, the "one couple, one child" policy has never been a hard and fast rule. The 1983 directive called for population control workers to refrain from imposing the one-child limit on peasant families, merely to "vigorously advocate" it as an ideal. In the countryside, especially in remote, impoverished, or minority areas, permission to have a second child could be obtained. At the same time, the directive stressed that local targets for population growth must continue to be met.

Rural officials proved by and large incapable of making the fine distinctions drawn by the new policy. They interpreted "vigorous advocacy" to mean that heavy fines, lengthy reeducation sessions, threats of infanticide, and incarceration were still acceptable. Under pressure to meet their assigned targets, they forced abortions and sterilizations on women who wanted second or third children.

Worried by rising rural discontent, the government further relaxed the policy of promoting one child in the countryside in late 1984. Couples facing "real difficulties," it was announced, could apply for permission to have a second child. The "real difficulties" in question were never clearly spelled out, but were widely understood to be those experienced if the first child was a girl: namely, that she could neither support her parents in their old age nor carry on the family name.

Exemptions from the one-child rule were not to be granted indiscriminately however. Local targets on population growth were to be respected. And the couples themselves had to meet several other conditions. More than four years had to have elapsed since the birth of their first child, and they had to agree in advance that one of their number, usually the woman, would be sterilized afterwards. Those women approved for a second child would, at the appropriate time, have their IUDs removed.

Once again local officials had been handed an ambiguous policy by the central party. In their reading of "vigorous advocacy" they had erred on the side of strictness and been criticized; now in their interpretation of "real difficulties" many erred on the side of laxity. Although perfectly ready to impose uniform rules, such as those governing the spacing of births and the timing of sterilization, they balked at assuming the divisive role of granting second children to some villagers while denying others. Instead, they gave license to all to conceive and bear a second child.

As large numbers of second-child exemptions were granted, China's birthrate rose from 18 to 21 per 1,000 in 1986. Now Peking is moving to limit the number of second births to 10 percent of first births. "Indiscriminate granting of exemptions is forbidden," Shanxi Party chief Zhang Boxing warned local officials on July 10. "If they are granted, the matter will be dealt with seriously. We must strictly ban the birth of a second or further child not covered by the plan." In rural China, the pendulum is once more swinging back towards the coercive.

Steven Mosher is director of Asian Studies at The Claremont Institute. He is the author of numerous books and articles on China, including "Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese" and "Journey to the Forbidden China."