We describe a unique birth defects surveillance system in the People's Republic of China. The system was instituted in March 1992 as a component of an evaluation of the effectiveness of a public health campaign using periconceptional folic acid supplementation to prevent neural tube defects, and currently surveys birth cohorts of ≈ 150 000 infants per year. Local health care providers collect information in the form of detailed written descriptions and photographs of affected infants. The system allows for detection of birth defects at the local level with later definitive classification and coding; however, information is limited to structural anomalies that are visible on physical examination. This birth defects surveillance system provides an extensive database of infants with major and minor external structural anomalies, including the unique feature of a photographic record for most cases. These data can be used for aetiological studies, descriptive epidemiology and identification of unusual trends.