China starves babies by the thousand

Revealed: irrefutable evidence of systematic abuse of orphans

AT SHANGHAI'S main orphanage, the case of Zeng Yuan was utterly ordinary. Admitted on 30 November 1991, at just five weeks old, she weighed in at a bouncing 10lb. Three days later, the doctor recorded she was already "listless" and suffering from "second degree malnutrition". By 12 December, her heartbeat was "low and shallow" and the "shape of intestines visible through abdomen". The following day, at a final "consultation", a senior doctor recorded "subcutaneous fat all gone", and ordered "take measures in accordance with the symptoms".

That last phrase, which stares repeatedly from the pages of hundreds of medical records from the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute, was tantamount to a death sentence. And, 16 days later, Zeng Yuan died, officially recorded as suffering from "congenital maldevelopment of brain function, general collapse of body functions, total circulatory failure".

But Baby Zeng was just one of thousands of infants and children each year who have been systematically starved to death or killed by deliberate neglect in China's state-run orphanages, according to a meticulously detailed report published today by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). In the words of the organisation, many welfare institutions "appeared to be operating as little more than assembly lines for the elimination of unwanted orphans".

Figures for national mortality rates for orphans and abandoned children were obtained by HRW from official Chinese published documents. They show, for example, that during 1989 one quarter of all children under the continuing care of China's urban orphanages died.

The evidence of barbaric behaviour came from detailed official records smuggled out of the country by a doctor, Zhang Shuyun: she worked at the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute from 1988 to 1993, and escaped from China last March. Numerous case studies document deliberate starvation, torture and sexual assault over many years. The records indicate that between 1986 and 1992 at this one Shanghai institution alone, more than 1,000 children died unnatural deaths.

Sun Zhu, a baby girl, was admitted in June 1989 at age one month, and died two months later. According to Dr Zhang, by the end "the baby was so hungry that she was trying to chew flesh off her hand". The cause of death was given as "congenital malformation of brain".

During the last four days of December 1991, 15 children died: at least nine deaths resulted from hypothermia after the toddlers had been left tied to "potty chairs" in freezing weather wearing only thin cotton clothing for 24 hours.

Dr Zhang describes a policy of "summary resolution" whereby the Shanghai orphanage population was kept static. "Once selected, the children would reportedly be denied virtually all food and medical care, and would sometimes even be given no water," said HRW. When critically weakened, the child would be given a final "consultation", as experienced by Baby Zeng. In practice this was the informal prerequisite for moving a child to the "waiting for death room". Death normally followed within a week.

A series of 34 colour photos accompanying the report show 10 severely malnourished infants and young children who died at the orphanage during June-July 1992. The photographs were taken by Ai Ming, a disabled inmate, who also escaped from China last year. One of the photos shows Jian Xun, an 11-year-old boy, emaciated and tied by his wrists and ankles to a bed. He died 10 days later.

The documents provide one of the most damning bodies of evidence to come out of China about abuses against babies and children. The report also details how staff at the Shanghai orphanage complained from the end of 1989 about the death rates, but an official investigation only resulted in a high-level cover-up.

According to HRW, the pattern of cruelty against orphans and abandoned children "now constitutes one of China's gravest human rights problems". China's strict family planning policies , which usually limit families to a single child, have increased the number of abandoned children, particularly girls. The situation is worsened because adults under 35 or with children are not allowed to adopt abandoned infants.

The government, apparently caught completely unawares by the report, issued a swift denial. "We have not yet seen this so-called report... The accusations levelled against our orphanages are completely baseless." said the State Council, China's Cabinet.

However, much of the horrifying evidence comes from official records, and the detailed nature of the evidence will make is difficult for the Chinese authorities to refute.

The official yearbook showed there were 5,539 children in urban orphanages at the beginning of 1989. During the year, 3,210 were admitted, 1,233 departed alive, and 1,857 died. "The evidence indicates that the likelihood of survival beyond one year, for a newly admitted orphan in China's welfare institutions nationwide, was less than 50 per cent in 1989," said HRW.

The report also shows how attempts by Dr Zhang and other outraged staff to stop the carnage were blocked. In December 1991, the Shanghai Bureau of Supervision sent in an investigative team which remained at the orphanage for eight months. During the same period, 16 members of Shanghai's People's Congress conducted their own investigation. Both teams confirmed the allegations , but nothing changed. And after high-level intervention by party officials, almost all the critical staff were forced from their jobs by 1993, and all but one of the congress members were prevented from standing for second terms in office.

Wu Banggauo, then Shanghai's Communist Party secretary, and now a vice- premier of China, ordered a blackout of coverage in the local media. Han Weicheng, the director of the orphanage from 1988 to 1994, who was accused of the rape of an orphan, was promoted and is now acting director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau Department of Social Welfare Work. This was despite revelations of a personal bank account holding around $80,000 in foreign currency, most of it foreign donations and adoption fees.

Since 1993, according to HRW, the Shanghai orphanage has been sanitised to become a showcase facility to encourage foreign donations and adoptions (for which a "donation" of $3,000 is demanded).

But, according to the report, Shanghai's No 2 Social Welfare Institute on Chongming Island has become the alternative dumping ground for unwanted babies and children.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'