TELEVISION REVIEW

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The Independent Culture
The miniaturisation of cameras has transformed television over the last five years, in almost every factual field - from sports coverage to investigative documentary. The full effect of the revolution - the word really isn't too strong - has still to be determined. But as film- makers explore the possibilities of secret filming, certain rough truisms are becoming apparent. The most obvious of these is that what is filmed secretly is not, of necessity, proof of guilt. Even if the smeary image of the concealed camera imparts a sense of furtive villainy to the most routine scenes, what emerges doesn't always secure a conviction.

The point was made by Secret Asia - The Dying Rooms (Channel 4), a programme which was, on the face of it, an extraordinary vindication of the technology. Kate Blewett and Brian Wood's film offered images from inside China's state orphanages, grim institutions which pick up the consequences of the government one-child policy. Combined with traditional Chinese family patterns this understandable attempt to curb population growth has turned inhumanly corrosive. Female babies, never a cause for rejoicing in Chinese families (they are known as "maggots in the rice bowl"), became a disaster - your one entry in the biological lottery perceived as a loser. The result is large scale infanticide and abandonment of female babies. Some end up in orphanages where they lead lives of brutal deprivation.

This was courageous, dogged film-making - a resolute attempt to record scenes that were painful to glance at, let alone return to day after day. What you saw was a disregard not just for a learned morality of care but also a baffling suppression of the most basic human instinct. Babies are tied to wooden chairs, their only stimulation the casual cruelties of passing children. Others are left to die - their suffering ignored until it is over. It was, without reservation, horrible.

So it may seem the worst kind of hair-splitting to quibble about some of the details of the film's case against the Chinese government, in particular the exact nature of the evidence it provided for the notorious "dying rooms", rooms in which babies are systematically starved to death. It matters, though, that such charges are exactly documented if they are to stick, particularly on the sheer face of official Chinese denials, and Secret Asia more than once wielded statistics with a casualness that niggled at you. "At least 15 million baby girls have disappeared since the one- child policy began" said the narration at one point. But if they had disappeared how exactly were they able to count them? Besides, as the following sentence made clear, an unspecified proportion of these "baby girls" were aborted. That's terrible enough in itself - but if abortions really count as infanticide, our own hands are hardly spotless. Of course our own motives for birth control are rather less urgent than the Chinese, and we call them foetuses, so that we don't feel too bad.

The film-makers were also very reluctant to surrender the idea of a much greater horror, that of a systematic culling of female children, to which the State turns a blind eye: "Although the Dying Rooms had proved more elusive than we had expected," the voiceover said, "we knew they were out there". But how exactly, aside from blind conviction? They did, eventually, find one child dying in a darkened room - an almost unbearable sight, but one that seemed indicative of a general, gender-blind indifference rather than a covert policy of extermination. Such discriminations may not matter much in the end - a terrible cruelty is being perpetrated and this film exposed it - but they matter greatly to the Chinese government, for whom the smallest exaggeration will serve as both cover and an excuse for continued inaction.

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