'TO ME, being able to see the Great Wall is nothing. I'd rather read a book and attend all the lessons I missed at school,' complains 17-year-old Liang Xingwang at Ma Jinming Opthalmology Centre in Shunyi district, Beijing. Xingwang is one of four million people with eye cataracts in China. The junior high student quit school last September when his sight failed as a result of the disease he inherited from his mother. 'My left eye has been blinded by cataracts, so I have to rely on my right eye to see, but it has gradually deteriorated,' said the teenager. Although the teenager's cataracts were diagnosed eight years ago, they were not treated until last Tuesday by the SightFirst China Action scheme, a five-year programme launched in 1997 by Lions Club International and the Chinese Government with the collaboration of the Chinese Ministry of Health and the China Disabled Persons' Federation. The programme is combining an epidemiological survey with medical health care, blindness prevention and treatment. 'My family is very poor. My father is unemployed since he had an accident at work and had his arms cut off by machines and my blind mother is always incapacitated at home,' said Xingwang, who lives in a remote village in Huai'yao county, more than 160km from Beijing. He knows how lucky he is to have had the free operation, which normally costs 3,000 yuan (HK$2,790) at a city hospital, three times the average annual income for villagers. Xingwang had been cared for by his 75-year-old grandfather who used to prepare his meals. 'I need my grandpa to carry me to the toilet at night, otherwise, I will topple in the dark,' he said. The SightFirst programme has pledged to restore the sight of 20,000 men, women and children each week this year. To date, more than 37,000 people per week have had their sight restored worldwide by similar programmes. Ophthalmologists from the World Health Organisation, the US, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Sri Lanka and other countries and about 200 volunteers and eye doctors from Hong Kong and Macau joined Beijing eye doctors to carry out the programme. Another beneficiary of the project is Liu Shonglin, a 53-year-old farmer from a village in Shaoying county, Beijing. 'Early last year, both of my eyes became blurred, like a mist covering my eyes. At the end, I could not even distinguish the seedlings from the weeds at the rice paddy. That worried me tremendously,' he said. 'I was thinking of committing suicide, but then who is going to feed my old handicapped mother and my retarded wife?' Hope came in May when local authorities and representatives of the Disabled Persons' Federation informed him about the programme. And after a simple 20-minute operation, he is able to see again. 'Usually blindness is not only one person's misfortune, but the tragedy of the whole family, especially when it strikes the breadwinner of the household,' said Dr Jiang Lijuan, director of Ma Jinming Ophthalmology Centre. Dr Jiang has a remarkable record of 16,662 successful cataract operations since 1982, after she learned the surgical techniques from overseas ophthalmologists visiting China under a programme to help upgrade medical standards. The relatively simple operation involves cutting a 3mm incision so the defective lens can be replaced with an artificial one. 'This technique achieves very satisfactory results in China, especially when I conduct operations in remote countryside like the Tibetan highlands, I do not need to carry bulky equipment when running around in the mountains,' said Dr Jiang. In the three years the project has been running, 160 medical teams have been dispatched to 1,379 counties in poor and remote areas to conduct sight-restoring operations. A total of 260 million yuan in operating costs were waived for poor patients.