Waiting To Die

The babies sacrificed for China's one-child policy

Mei Ming has lain this way for 10 days now: tied up in urine-soaked blankets, scabs of dried mucus growing across her eyes, her face shrinking to a skull, malnutrition slowly shrivelling her two-year-old body.

Each morning a fellow inmate at her Guangdong orphanage goes into the dark fetid room where she lies alone to see if she is dead. The orphanage staff, paid to look after her, do not visit. They call her room the 'dying room' and they have abandoned her there for the same reason her parents abandoned her shortly after she was born. Her problem is simple and tragic: she has a condition which in modern China makes her next to useless, a burden on the state with an almost zero chance of adoption. She is a girl.

When she dies four days later it will not be of some terminal, incurable illness, It will be of sheer neglect. Afterwards the orphanage will dispose of her desiccated corpse and deny she ever existed. She will just be another victim of the collision between China's one-child policy and its traditional preference for male heirs. The name the orphanage gave her articulates precisely the futility of struggle to survive in a society that holds no value for her. In Putonghua, Mei-ming means "no name".

She is one of perhaps 15 million female babies who have gone missing from China's demographics since the one child per family policy was introduced in 1979. Another tiny bag of bones in what some sinologists claim is the 20th century's hidden holocaust.

The birth of a baby girl has never been a cause for celebration in China. In general, an infant boy will be celebrated with fireworks display and parties; a girl with silence. According to records there are currently six million women in China christened Lai Di. The name means "a son follows quickly".

Tradition dictates that when a daughter marries she will join her husband's family, her children will take his family name and she must support his parents in their old age. In rural areas, female infants are simply a drain on resources. They are referred to as "maggots in the rice". Stories of peasant farmers drowning new-born girls in a bucket of water have been commonplace for centuries. Now, however, as a direct result of the one-child policy there are growing reports of infanticide all across China, including its towns and cities. The numbers of baby girls being abandoned, aborted or dumped on orphanage steps is unprecedented.

It is impossible to understate both how crucial the one-child policy is to China's stability and how rigidly it is enforce. Everyone - the World Bank, the United Nations, China's own statisticians - agrees that if the population, already at 2.1 billion, is allowed to grow, China will be unable to support itself, let alone develop. The result would be economic collapse, environmental ruin, famine.

But while most Chinese can accept the mathematics of the problem, many cannot accept the draconian mechanics of the solution. The population continues to rise. A child is born every 1.5 seconds, 2400 every hour, 21 million a year. In March 1995 President Jiang Zemin was forced to set new, tougher population controls and tougher punishments for those who ignore them. Couples who attempt to have more than one child will be dealt with brutally.

According to Steven Mosher, the author A Mother's Ordeal, coerced abortions, sometimes just days before the baby is due, are now commonplace . As reports of enforced sterilized and of hospitals fatally injecting second babies shortly after their birth. "It means tremendous coercion," he says, "on women to submit to abortion and sterilization. It also means that however overcrowded China's orphanages are now with baby girls, the problem is going to get worse. Very much worse.

A British TV team gained access to several orphanages in southern China under false pretences and filmed what they saw. In one orphanage a dozen or so baby girls are supervised by an adolescent girl in a white coat. The infant inmates sit on bamboo benches in the middle of a courtyard. Their wrists and ankles are tied to the armrests and legs of the bench. They have been there all day unable to move. A row of plastic buckets is lined up beneath holes in their seats to catch their urine and excrement. The children will not be moved again until night when their benches will be carried back into their cot room and they will be lifted out and tied to their beds.

"It was heart-breaking." said Kate Blewett, producer of the Channel Four documentary. "They had no stimulation, nothing to play with, no one to touch them, They have never known affection. Such is the lack of stimulation for the children that the one thing they all have in common in an endless rocking. They sit tied to their potty chairs rocking backwards and forwards and screaming. Few of them will ever learn to speak and the rocking is the only exercise, the only stimulation, the only pleasure in their lives"

The above paragraphs are quoted from a controversial article in the South China Morning Post, June 25, 1995. An earlier article, published in 1993, had led to a British TV crew filming The Dying Rooms in southern China. The Chinese Embassy in London responded to the film with a statement whose final paragraph read: "The so-called 'dying rooms' do not exist in China at all. Our investigations show that those reports are vicious fabrications made out of ulterior motives. The contemptible lie about China's welfare work cannot but arouse the indignation of the Chinese people, especially the great numbers of social workers who are working hard for children's welfare."

For more information, contact: The Dying Room Trust, 68 Thames Road, London W4 3RE.