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The dying rooms: Chinese orphanages adopt a ‘zero population growth policy’

The medical histories of the dead children of the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute, China’s showcase orphanage, read like macabre experiments in human starvation:

Ke Yue, a girl, was admitted to the orphanage in November 1989, the month of her birth. Two and a half years later, on 9 June 1992, orphanage doctors recorded that she had developed “third-degree malnutrition,” was “breathing in shallow gasps.” On 10 June, she was admitted to the Medical Ward, where she died later the same day. Two separate causes of death were diagnosed by her physician, Wu Junfeng: “severe malnutrition” and “congenital maldevelopment of brain.”

Huo Qiu, a girl born in approximately February 1988, arrived at the orphanage on 3 January 1991, at the age of three. One and a half years later, on 16 June 1992, she was diagnosed as suffering from “severe malnutrition” and “cerebral palsy.” A week later, she was dead, According to her medical records, she died of the two illnesses just mentioned, together with, for good measure, “mental deficiency.”

Ba Chong, a baby girl, was admitted to the orphanage on 3 January 1992, the day after her birth, weighing a respectable 2.8 kilograms. On 17 June, she was admitted to the Medical Ward and diagnosed as suffering from “severe malnutrition” and “severe dehydration.” Three days later she developed a head infection caused by a bedsore, and was recorded as being “listless.” She died at 7:10 a.m. on 30 June, at the age of six months. Death was noted in the medical records as having resulted from “malnutrition,” “severe dehydration” and “phlegmona” (an uncontrolled form of subcutaneous necrotic infection).

Sun Zhu, a baby girl born in May 1989, was admitted to the orphanage at the age of one month. Medical staff recorded her general condition on arrival as “poor,” although her weight was normal, and branded her as being “mentally defective.” In late July, after a seven-week gap in the medical records, Sun was suddenly said to be suffering from third-degree malnutrition. Ten days later [Sun] was again diagnosed as being “mentally defective,” and the physician suggested she might also have cerebral palsy, although the only indications were that she was “listless” and had “high muscular tension in all limbs,” probably because she was starving. In any event, no medication or treatment was prescribed, and three days later Sun died, ostensibly of “congenital maldevelopment of brain.”

Zeng Yuan, a baby girl born on 25 October 1991, was admitted to the orphanage on 30 November 1991 weighing a bouncing 4.5 kilogram… [but] was marked down as a “monitor intelligence” case. Three days later, implausibly enough, her physician recorded that she was suffering from “second-degree malnutrition.” By 12 December, she was “listless,” showed “poor response to external stimuli,” and her subcutaneous fat layer had vanished, The next day she was diagnosed as suffering from “congenital maldevelopment of brain,” The doctor ordered the nursing staff to “take measures in accordance with the symptoms,” followed as usual by a complete blank on the medical records, Two weeks later, Zeng died, ostensibly of “congenital maldevelopment of brain function” and “total circulatory failure.”1

When these damning records were reprinted in a 394—page Human Rights Watch/Asia report last month, they were condemned as “sheer fabrication” by a staffer at the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute. Foreign journalists were hastily invited to tour the carefully spruced up orphanage, where they heard Han Weicheng, the former director of the orphanage under whose tenure the worst abuses were said to have occurred, assert that “a very detailed investigation [by Shanghai authorities] revealed that none of the charges [of mistreatment and neglect of children] were true.”2 “Completely baseless,” chimed in China’s governing State Council.

Baseless these charges are not. There is mounting evidence that the practice of letting unwanted children die of starvation and neglect is not limited to Shanghai, but is found in orphanages nationwide. As early as 1993 the South China Morning Post published photos and an account of “dying rooms” at an orphanage in Nanning in Guangxi Province. Staff members told the Hong Kong newspaper that 90 percent of the baby girls who arrived at the orphanage died there. When a British journalist paid a call on the orphanage three months later, conditions had not improved:

The scene in the shabby upstairs room of what is little better than a squalid hovel is utterly heartbreaking, Nineteen newborn infants, crammed four and jive to each rusty cot, lie sleeping on filthy mattresses, their tiny heads peeping out over torn blankets .… This is the place they call the Dying Room… Mr. Lin [Jijie, the director of the orphanage] says the orphanage has its own doctor; but no one ever knew where to find him. So the babies die of problems which could easily be remedied .… “Ten percent a month die at least. That’s quite normal,” he said, matter-of-factly. 3

In 1995 a British television crew posing as American charity workers managed to gain access to several Chinese orphanages. They encountered scenes of Dickensian horror: infants suffering from extreme malnutrition, young children tied hand and foot to wooden toilets, and the like. They were even able to slip into the “dying room” of one Guangdong orphanage, where they found a weak and emaciated little girl, Mei Ming, who had been abandoned there by the staff a week prior. Mei Ming — whose name means “No Name” in Chinese — expired three days after their visit, as they were later able to confirm by telephone. The documentary which resulted, called “The Dying Rooms,” aired on Britain’s Channel 4 and was later shown in the U.S., in somewhat abbreviated form, on “Eye-to-Eye with Connie Chung.”4

An article in September 1995 by German journalist Jurgen Kremb in the newsmagazine Der Spiegel described similar conditions in a Harbin orphanage in the far Northeast of China. Kremb called this institution a “Kindergulag” (children’s gulag) where the children are “like discarded, abandoned human garbage, their hands raven-black with dirt, their faces smeared with leftover food, snot, and excrement, their small bodies strangely twisted .… [In the dying room] handicapped small bodies, some just skin and bones … doze in their own urine, some naked, some dressed in a dirty little jacket… Under a bed in the next room: a small bundle of rags. ‘Dead,’ says the graceful Guo Ying [the 14-year old girl in charge]. Last night, the infant, whose name no one knows, died. The older children have wrapped the body in a couple of dirty cloths, which serve as a shroud. They then shoved the dead baby under the bed, where it stays until the staff get around to removing the corpse. On weekends that can take two or three days.”5

Anecdotal evidence abounds. An American missionary befriended a boy toddler in an orphanage in southwest China. Chinese staff members had stigmatized the boy as “mentally defective,” but the missionary disagrees. “He had a crippled leg, but otherwise he was healthy,” the missionary maintains. “I taught him to sing. Then I left town on business. And when I got back, he was dead.”6

On a visit to Hong Kong in June 1994 a local social worker showed the author pictures of dead and dying infants which she had taken in the “dying room” of an another orphanage in southwest China. This eyewitness recounted how baby girls were simply cast aside at the first sign of weakness to die a slow and painful death by dehydration and malnutrition, suggesting that this was how the orphanage staff coped with the large numbers of abandoned baby girls produced by the one-child policy.

The most explosive charge leveled by the Human Rights Watch/Asia report is that the neglect which has been documented in a dozen individual orphanages is neither uncommon nor benign, but rather is universal and deliberate. The reason that conditions in China’s orphanages are so appalling, the authors of Death by Default claim, is that there is a broad government program aimed at eliminating excess and unwanted infants of all kinds, but particularly females.

One child policy devalues girls

The introduction of the one-child policy in China 15 years ago has been a disaster for girls. Couples desperate to have a son to support them in old age — according to Chinese custom daughters go to live with their husband’s families upon marriage — have gone to extreme lengths to ensure that their only legally permitted child be the right sex. Female fetuses are selectively aborted, while newborn baby girls fall victim to infanticide. Those infant girls, who are merely abandoned, rather than killed in utero or after birth, must be considered fortunate. The rigid application of the one-child policy even leads parents to cast aside older daughters upon the arrival of a son, and to abandon the earlier-born handicapped child for a later-born healthy one.

In dynastic times peasants left their children to the mercy of strangers because they had nothing to feed them. But living standards have radically improved over the last 15 years of economic reform, with double—digit GNP growth of late. The current wave of child abandonment is driven by political imperatives, not economic necessity. From time to time this comes through loud and clear, as in the note that was pinned to one foundling.

“Kind-hearted people,” it read, “we are abandoning our child not because we cannot care for her, but because of the official one-child policy. Dear daughter, we do not have bad hearts. We couldn’t keep you. Friendly people who take her up, we cannot repay the debt in this life. But perhaps in the next life.”7

Of the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of girls abandoned each year, many die of exposure. Others are taken home by ‘friendly people’ who are willing to risk the wrath of the population control officials.8 Even so, China’s orphanages are filled to the bursting with newborn and toddler girls, with dozens more arriving each month. Abandoned girls are said to account for over 90 percent of the inmate populations of Chinese orphanages.9 At the main orphanage in Wuhan, for instance, Kay Johnson reports that for the four-year period from 1988 to 1992 over “90+ percent” of the inmates were girls.”10 And still the foundlings keep coming in an endless stream.

‘Zero population growth’

This influx of baby girls, of course, puts an enormous strain on the resources of China’s state-run orphanages. But while shortages of staff or medical supplies might lead to moderately increased infant mortality, it cannot account for annual death rates of 90 percent or more among new admissions.11 Nor can it account for the deliberate, even malicious, way these helpless infants are condemned to die by starvation and dehydration. The origins of the practice of death by malign neglect lie, as do so many things in China, in the politics of one-party dictatorship.

The huge numbers of abandoned baby girls constitute a massive indictment of the one-child policy, which was imposed on the Chinese people fifteen years ago by Communist patriarch Deng Xiaoping. Their piteous cries give the lie to the Party’s claim that cases of female abandonment are rare. Indeed, their very existence is seen as an embarrassment, even an insult, to senior Party leaders. From the point of view of Party functionaries, including those who run China’s orphanages, it would have been better if they had never been born. To deny their existence a “zero population growth” policy has been established in China’s orphanages, under which inmate populations are kept stable through deliberate attrition.

The politics of the one-child policy have thus totally perverted the purpose of China’s so-called “child welfare institutes.” Orphanages have become adjuncts of the population control program, killing sites where surplus babies are selectively targeted for elimination. Infant girls who survive the earlier gauntlet of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and abandonment now face a further risk: they may be left to die of hunger and thirst in the very institutions where they were taken for sanctuary.

The principal evidence for this policy of death by malign neglect, aside from the mortality statistics themselves, comes from a Chinese doctor named Zhang Shuyun. Dr. Zhang, who worked at the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute from 1988 to l993, compiled dozens of case studies of infants who died of neglect at the orphanage. Her efforts to expose the scandal only succeeded in arousing the wrath of her superiors, who then demoted and persecuted her. She fled the country last year armed with about 50 pounds of documentation, determined to seek out human rights organizations before which to present her case.12 Zhang’s charges have been corroborated by a former inmate of the facility, a young man named Ai Ming who, during his years at the orphanage, witnessed a number of infants and children die of neglect.

“Summary Resolution”

Death does not come randomly to China’s orphans, but is the result of a conscious decision by orphanage staff to deprive a particular infant or group of infants of care. According to Dr. Zhang, this procedure is known as “summary resolution,” and it is carried out as follows: Whenever the number of children in a ward exceed a certain level, the child-care workers agree among themselves to bring the population back to “normal” by eliminating some of their little charges. A collective decision will be made that certain orphans, because they are smaller or weaker than the others, or because they have some congenital abnormality, are medically “unviable.” Food and water are then withheld from those targeted, making the decision of unviability a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After several weeks of deliberate neglect, with the child’s health rapidly failing, senior medical staff at the orphanage will be called in. Their role is not to save the children’s lives, but rather to validate the earlier staff decision of “unviability” by providing a convincing medical diagnosis. As in the case histories recounted previously, these doctors usually fall back upon one of a small number of pseudo-medical concepts, such as “congenital maldevelopment of brain” or “third degree malnutrition” to explain the child’s imminent demise.

The child-care workers then transfer the child to the “dying room” without fear of reproach, knowing that they have a medical cover for their homicidal neglect.

Babies for profit

In recent years a little girl’s fate has come to be determined by a new factor: her adoptability. When Deng Xiaoping remarked a few years ago that “to get rich was glorious,” China’s tens of millions of officials took him at his word. Not content to live on their meager state salaries, officials at all levels of government began supplementing their incomes by marketing whatever resources they happened to control, be it prisoners in China’s labor camps or access to infrastructure projects, The directors of China’s orphanages are no exception. Although Beijing denies that it sells babies, most orphanages demand a $3,000 “donation.” This creates an incentive for staff to nurture some babies for adoption, while neglecting others who for reasons of health or appearance are deemed unadoptable.

Beijing damage control

In a country with a free press and a well-developed respect for human rights, reports of orphans dying of neglect would have been grounds for an immediate official investigation. Embarrassed government officials would have publicly promised to correct the situation and punish those responsible. Not so in China, where the Party and its minions are always right, and those who dare to voice criticism of its policies are made to pay a heavy price.

Dr. Zhang, who is now living in the United States, was beyond reach, but others who found her allegations of abuse credible were not. One of these, a Shanghai trade union official named Xia Xinyuan, has been detained since mid-November in connection.13 Mr. Xu’s detention will have, in the minds of Chinese officials, two salutary effects. The first is that it removes from circulation a key witness against the state officials charged with the abuse and manslaughter of orphans. The second is that it will terrify into silence others in China who might wish to expose similar abuses.

U.S. adoption agencies

The only Western groups which had a kind word to say about the orphanage situation in China are those which process adoptions from that country, or who have themselves adopted children from China. The Mid-Atlantic and New York chapters of an organization of adoptive parents, Families with Children from China, for example, were at pains to point out that they had no criticism to make of conditions in the Chinese orphanages that they had been allowed to see. They went out of their way to point out that “the care provided for their children was as good as possible, given the resource constraints.”14

But their chief concern is assuring the continued flow of orphans out of the country. One can sympathize with their fear that Beijing might, in a fit of anger over foreign criticism, forbid foreign adoptions. After all, this would only ensure that more Chinese baby girls would die.

Help is on the way?

Many in the West have thought to reach out to these dying orphans. UNICEF has announced that it has reached an agreement with China to start an $850,000 program to improve the care of orphans and disabled children in Chinese child welfare institutes.15 Given the widespread level of corruption in China, much of this aid will be siphoned off by officials at various levels in the bureaucracy. Little is likely to trickle down to the children themselves.

Private orphanages, run by dedicated volunteers acting out of moral conviction, would seem to be the only solution. Such institutions, mostly staffed by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, were common in the China of 50 years ago.

The Chinese Communist Party, suspicious of foreign imperialists, called them “places of atrocity for China’s disabled children.” The list of lies and calumnies spread about them is endless, but the following quote from a Party document will give the flavor of such accounts:

In the Huayuanshan Foundling Home in the city of Wuhan, there was a “ten thousand man pit” where weak and crippled children suffered to a degree the eye could not bear witness, and where those not yet dead were thrown in while still alive; The Catholic orphanage in Xi’an, the Catholic Foundling home in Zhaoqing, Guangdong [Province], the ‘Kindly Affection’ Foundling Horne in Nanjing and so on. The truth about the crimes in all these places is unspeakably shocking.

How ironic that a half century after the Chinese Communist Party first spread these lies about foreign—run orphanages their own institutions should prove to be, in truth, as bad as the lies they made up about foreign Christians. For the truth about the crimes being committed today in China’s state-run orphanages is, indeed, “unspeakably shocking.”16 —PRI—


1 Human Rights Watch/Asia, Death by Default: A Policy of Fatal Neglect in China’s State Orphanages, p. 173 passim.

2 El Neuvo Herald, 7 January 1996.

3 “Condemned to die for being a girl,” The Daily Mail (London), 20 December 1993.

4 Patrick Tyler “In China’s Orphanages: A war of perception” The New York Times, 21 January 1996.

5 Jurgen Kremb, “The children’s gulag of Harbin,” Der Spiegel, no. 37 11 September 1995.

6 Carroll Bogert “Leaving them to starve” Newsweek, 15 January 1996.

7 Kremb, op cit. reprinted in Death by Default, op cit.p.375.

8 . Death by Default op cit. p. 133-34.

9 . Death by Default ibid. p. 132.

10 Kay Johnson, “Chinese Orphanages: Saving China’s abandoned girls.” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 30. July 1993, p. 72.

11 Death by Default, op. cit. p. 83-96.

12 “Report alleges neglect kills China Orphans” Los Angeles Times, 6 January, 1996, p. 8.

13 “Retaliatory arrest reported in China,” Washington Post, 24 January 1996.

14 “Orphanages in China,” Letters, Washington Post, 19 January 1996.

15 Statement by the Families with Children From China: Mid-Atlantic and New York Chapters” from the website No date given.

16 “Excerpts from historical manuscripts of civil affairs in China,” Appendix B, Death by Default, p. 326.

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