Peking insists it is not starving orphans

Propaganda barrage follows new report on children killed by neglect in 'dying rooms'
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The Chinese government has launched a desperate propaganda exercise following publication at the weekend of evidence that thousands of babies and children have been dying every year in state-run urban orphanages. The dossier of evidence, taken from official Chinese publications and medical records kept at the main orphanage in Shanghai, indicates that infants and children have been systematically starved to death and killed by intentional neglect in recent years.

The report will overshadow tomorrow's arrival in Peking of the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, on a visit billed as further restoring Sino- British ties before Hong Kong's transfer to China next year. China's human- rights record is now centre-stage again for any visiting diplomat.

Even before the orphanage study, the past few weeks had seen a 14-year sentence passed on the dissident Wei Jingsheng and the disappearance of the six-year-old boy chosen by the Dalai Lama as Tibet's reincarnated Panchen Lama.

The orphanages report, by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), includes national death figures and hundreds of cases of dead infants and children at the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute, the city's main orphanage. It is backed up by photographs of dead and dying children.

The study is the most detailed evidence obtained of conditions in China's urban orphanages. Peking, apparently stung by the weight of material, has invited the foreign media today to inspect the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute. The HRW report describes how the institute was revamped into a "Potemkin orphanage" for foreign visitors in 1993. Meanwhile, the official Xinhua News Agency yesterday started churning out statistics about improving child-vaccination levels, measles, and child nutrition.

The report makes stark reading, particularly as an official Chinese investigation launched in 1991 subsequently fell victim to a cover-up. Medical records and testimony presented by the HRW from the Shanghai orphanage show that deaths were "in many cases deliberate and cruel". The HRW describes the process as "an apparently systematic programme of child elimination". Orphanage records indicate that from 1986 to 1992 more than 1,000 children died unnatural deaths at this one institution.

Typical was the case of Ba Jun, a baby admitted on 2 January 1992, aged one month and weighing 3.8kg. On arrival, records said, her general health was "quite satisfactory" but 11 days later she was described as suffering from "second-degree malnutrition". By 18 January she had "third-degree malnutrition and bronchial pneumonia". By 4 February her limbs were "cold" and a doctor diagnosed the illness as "critical" after five prescriptions to administer antibiotics had been ignored by staff. However, the same physician added: "Had intended to administer oxygen therapy but valve of oxygen cylinder blocked, so did not proceed with treatment." Ba Jun died four days later.

Another baby was so hungry before she died "she was trying to chew flesh off her hand". In December 1991, 15 children died over four days after toddlers were tied to "potty chairs" and left out in freezing weather wearing thin cotton clothes for 24 hours. Physical abuse was routine. "Infants below one year of age frequently choked to death during feedings because they were normally tied to their beds almost continuously," said the HRW.

The Shanghai documents were smuggled out by a doctor, Zhang Shuyun, who worked at the institute there from 1988 to 1993 and who escaped from China in March last year.

The HRW investigation was two-pronged. The detailed Shanghai picture is complemented by government statistics which present a gruesome picture of life and death in urban orphanages across the country as a whole. According to Ministry of Civil Affairs statistics, in 1989 a quarter of babies and children in the continuing care of the country's urban orphanages died.

A breakdown by province indicates how numbers of inmates were kept stable over the course of a year because the number of deaths was enough to counterbalance the level of new admissions.

This suggested "a deliberate policy of adjusting death-rates to maintain a constant population in each institution", said the HRW. Some orphanages operated as effective "death camps", the report alleged.

Analysis of evidence showed that in a majority of cases, death struck within a year of admission to an orphanage. "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 the HRW.

Dr Zhang confirmed that within the Shanghai orphanage the population was kept static by a deliberate process called "summary resolution", the HRW said: "Once selected, the children would reportedly be denied virtually all food and medical care and would sometimes even be given no water." When critically weakened, the child would be moved to the "waiting-for- death room". Death normally followed within a week.

Today's media tour of Dr Zhang's former workplace is set to be a propaganda own-goal for Peking, however, as the HRW report makes it clear that in mid-1993 the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute was "sanitised" to create a showcase institution to attract foreign donations and overseas adoption parents.

Since 1993, it is the No 2 Social Welfare Institute, which is situated on Chongming Island, two hours by car and boat from the city centre, which has taken over as "a virtual dumping ground for abandoned infants delivered to the orphanage". That institution is not on today's itinerary.

Government officials will be pressed today on how a high level cover- up blocked attempts by Dr Zhang and other staff to curb the death-toll. In December 1991 the Shanghai Bureau of Supervision sent in an investigative team which remained at the orphanage for eight months. During the same time, 16 members of Shanghai's People's Congress did their own investigation. Both teams confirmed the allegations of Dr Zhang and her colleagues. But after intervention by party officials, almost all critical staff had been dismissed or 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 head in Shanghai of the Communist Party and now a vice-premier, ordered a media blackout.

Han Weicheng, director of the orphanage from 1988 to 1994, who was accused of raping an orphan, was in 1994 promoted and is now acting director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau Department of Social Welfare, despite disclosures that he had a personal bank account holding pounds 53,000 in foreign currency, most of it foreign donations and adoption fees.