Pity the Chinese human rights specialists dragged out to defend their country's record.
Professor Liu Hainian, the director of the law institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Cass), and his colleagues yesterday trod a careful path between attacking Western human rights groups' allegations over orphanages and calling for improvements in the judicial system. Under the watchful eye of a Foreign Ministry official who had organised a "briefing" for foreign correspondents, Mr Liu and his fellow academics chose their words with care.
Commenting on the recent Human Rights Watch/Asia (HRW) report about the alarming death rate in China's orphanages, Mr Liu said he had "some doubts" about the "personality" of Zhang Shuyun, the doctor from the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute who provided much of the data and photographs. "How can she refrain from doing anything but only taking some photographs, rather than reporting to the responsible persons or untying the knot? Why hasn't she done that?" In fact, Ms Zhang repeatedly reported the abuses, starting three years before the photographs were taken.
Mr Liu said that many of the children had been abandoned or were handicapped, so it was "somewhat inevitable" that deaths would occur. Choosing not to dispute the statistics in the report, he said: "I believe it is only an accident. It has occurred due to the carelessness of some of the staff at the welfare institute. It has not been done intentionally. Nor is it the intention of the government."
Asked about the Ministry of Civil Affairs' statistics for 1989 which showed that one quarter of orphanage inmates died that year, Mr Liu said: "I have noticed the high percentage of infant mortality rate raised by the statistics book ... I think more work should be done to bring down the mortality rates."
Shen Guofeng, a senior government official, directed his fire at the Channel 4 documentary, Return to the Dying Rooms. He accused the producer of telling staff at a provincial orphanage that "they should make the institute look as poor as possible so as to get more money, more funds". He said the producer had painted "the eyes of the small children so it looks as if the child had many diseases". But Mr Liu was surprisingly forthright about public sentencing rallies. "I have heard that some criminals are marched along the street, or [paraded] in cars or trucks," he said. "I have already proposed that it should not be done like this. As for the public announcing of verdicts ... we should not do it like this."
Mr Liu confirmed that his research body received copies of HRW and Amnesty International reports, and that he had met representatives of Amnesty abroad.
The academics also spoke candidly about planned amendments to China's criminal procedure laws. Professor Wang Jiafu, director of Cass's centre for human rights studies, said the draft law planned to end administrative "custody for investigation", whereby suspects can be held without charge for long periods. By law, there is a 72-hour limit on detention without formal arrest, but in practice this is meaningless because the public security bodies can hold people during "investigations".
Mr Liu admitted that there was "abuse" of the administrative penalties. The aim seems to be to provide for conditions whereby a suspect can legally be held for up to a month, in return for scrapping the "custody for investigation". Some academics "hold the view that this [custody for investigation] should be abolished because they believe it is in violation of the rights of the people concerned," said Mr Wang.