What do condoms mean to the Chinese? A family planning product as they have been for a long time or something for safe sex? The answer seems to be the latter.
Three-pack condoms are seen more and more often in vending machines on the streets of China's capital, Beijing, where most married people do not need to buy them as they receive them free from the government for birth control.
Durex's well-packed products are placed side by side with chewing gum beside the cashier in a Watsons supermarket in busy Wangfujing Street.
For a long time condoms were sold at small and shady adult shops and many people were offended when the government decided to place condom vending machines in universities a couple of years ago.
Many ordinary people and family planning administration documents routinely referred to condoms as "biyuntao," meaning a contraceptive device in Chinese.
But the word "biyuntao" is greatly opposed by medical workers and social workers fighting AIDS.
"People shall realize that to use condoms is more than to avoid pregnancy, but to protect themselves and their partner from sexually transmitted diseases," said Yu Xiuhua, a volunteer for the Red Cross Society of China in southwestern Yunnan Province.
"I prefer another name for condoms, 'anquantao', and I stick toit not only at work, but also when chatting with my friends," she said. Now more and more people use the new word "anquantao" that hints at safe sex in Chinese.
Condoms are considered the most effective way to protect people from being infected with the HIV virus through sex.
China reported a year-on-year rise of 16.7 percent of HIV-infected people registered in the first half of this year, according to the Ministry of Health.
The ministry estimated the total number of HIV-infected people in China at one million, 7.2 percent of whom are infected through sexual intercourse.
Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health had selected four Chinese cities for trial promotion in places of entertainment for the use of condoms.
"The government is farseeing to adopt the project though our city does not suffer a severe problem of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases," said Zhou Hongyan, head of the local clinic in charge of epidemic prevention in Lixian, of central Hunan Province, one of the four pilot cities.
The Chinese government purchases 1.2 billion condoms annually for family planning. Employees in private and foreign-funded companies do not enjoy free condoms, though their numbers are rising.
More and more young people buy condoms before getting married as pre-marital sex becomes more common amongst the Chinese.
"Free condoms won't last for long," said Tim Manchester, social marketing manager of the Futures Group Europe, which is in charge of a condom social marketing program under the China-UK HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Project. But the shift from free condoms to an ordinary commodity faces the problem of how to guarantee the quality.
There are seven condom suppliers for government purchase and more than 500 small manufacturers as well as a considerable number of companies that pack condoms made by other producers under their own brand.
The most expensive 12-packs cost more than 20 yuan (2.4 US dollars), but the cheapest only cost two yuan (20 US cents), according to Yu Zuoxun, sales manager of Futures Group Europe in southwest China's Sichuan Province. He used to sell condoms.
"People are usually too embarrassed to turn to the Consumers' Rights Protection Association when buying counterfeit or bad condoms," he said. Ordinary people are too shy to talk about anything related to sex.
"We shall make sure people will get quality products at a reasonable price in an easy way," Manchester said.
The China/UK project funded a program to promote the use of condoms in the two southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, which suffer more severe problems with AIDS/HIV.
The program had joined with Qingdao Double-Butterfly Company, which has a joint venture with Durex, to develop a new brand of condom, the "Double-Butterfly."
The condoms were sold at an affordable price and were of high quality, Manchester said.
Most of the condoms were sold in vending machines and chain drugstores and the program also trained local salesmen about AIDS prevention.