So desperate is the desire in China for a son that doctors believe relatives may have attempted to murder a baby girl by jamming a needle into her head. Her death would have allowed the parents to try again under the strict "one couple, one child" family planning policy.

But the little girl, who is 11, did not die. This week, doctors took her into surgery and removed the needle that they believe was the cause of the child’s mental disabilities.

Kuang Yongqin, deputy director of the neurosurgery department at a military hospital in the southwestern city of Chengdu, led the operation.

"This is evil," Kuang said afterwards.

The mother of Pingping (not her real name) said she had reported the case to the police and was planning to bring charges against family members who may have been responsible for the attempted murder of her daughter. Police had advised the mother, Yang Xiaohui, to keep the needle as well as a scan that showed the object buried in the head of her daughter.

Yang said she had been under great pressure to give birth to a son when she married Pingping’s father since he already had a daughter by his first wife. She aborted her first fetus after it was found to be a girl amid pressure from her mother-in-law. However, she went ahead and gave birth to Pingping.

She remembered that the baby barely cried after she was born, and then screamed non-stop for the entire fourth day of her life. She also ran a high fever and has been troubled by unexplained fevers ever since.

The couple moved to the booming east coast five years ago to work in the factories that are China’s workshop to the world and took their daughter to hospital when she had a very high temperature of 104 degrees. The doctors told her that they had found metal in her head.

Yang called her mother-in-law to ask her advice. The elder woman said: "How could she survive so long with metal in the head?"

Yang regarded that response as reasonable and made no further inquiries to the hospital, knowing that any surgery would be hugely costly in a country that offers no social welfare for rural residents.

Now, Yang said, she deeply regrets waiting all this time..

Instead, she did her best to teach her daughter to walk and to speak simple words such as "Mummy" and "Daddy". But Pingping has the mental age of a child of 3.

It was only when she tried to register her daughter at a kindergarten that doctors told her they had found a clear image of a needle inside her daughter’s brain and piercing a main blood vessel.

The needle was so firmly embedded in Pingping’s head and so rusty that doctors estimated it had been in place for at least ten years. They could not pull it out but had to remove it by slowly twisting it.

Hospital medical staff told The Times that Pingping was doing well, but it was unlikely she would recover from her mental disability.

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