For 30 years, Yu Huajian visited villages in rural China to remind couples to have just one child, to abide by the law and help the economy. He also pursued violators of the much-hated policy and oversaw abortions.
Since the one-child policy was abandoned in October, Mr. Yu and some of the half a million other family-planning workers have knocked on rural doors with a different message: How to play with children, read to them and raise them with better skills.
The shift was abrupt, but Mr. Yu said he has always done what he and leaders thought was best for the country.
"I think we should focus now on education," he said. "It's more meaningful."
China's leaders say that the one-child policy, which was ended amid a growing demographic imbalance, improved livelihoods. But for rural Chinese, the gap between them and urban dwellers widened sharply during the country's decades of explosive growth.
Today, their annual per capita disposable income is around $1,750, compared with $4,770 for their urban counterparts. High-school graduation rates for rural students are about 3%, compared with 63% for those in cities, according to China's Ministry of Education and the Asian Development Bank.
That gap has come into focus as China's government tries to shift the economy toward services and away from low-skilled manufacturing.
"This is China's ticking time bomb," said Shi Yaojiang, an economics professor at Shaanxi Normal University who is working with the government on the early-childhood project.
"The roads have all been paved, the buildings all constructed," said Mr. Shi. "We now need a labor supply that's up to standard."
The new early-childhood initiative has been rolled out in 15 provinces, districts and cities, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
Cai Jianhua, the director of program training at the commission, is urging China's senior leaders to reorient the commission toward early-childhood development and expand funding to build early educational centers.