You can learn a lot about a country from the lies it tells. Britain - desperate to keep its ‘green and pleasant’ label - tried to deny the presence of brain-rotting BSE in cow populations during the late 1990s. America - blinded by flag-waving ‘freedom’ - pretends to this day that selling a gun to anyone with $150 isn’t in fact a form of bondage, one that keeps the nation in a perpetual state of low anxiety.
You won’t find a more painful example of a country (or parts of it) pulling the wool over its own eyes, however, than a story that emerged this week. China has stopped to follow the fate of Baby 59 – a newborn boy let fall down the toilet by its mother, then rescued mewling from a sewage pipe by passers-by. At first, officials said the case would be treated as attempted murder. That decision appears to have been reversed. The mother, officials now claim, dropped the child “by accident” – and after it recovers the 6lb. 2oz boy will be reunited with its traumatised but essentially innocent parent.
Scepticism is hard to push aside here. To insiders, China’s national lie runs something like this – that authoritarian policies pursued by its Communist government, lashing the dragon economy ever onward, do not bring with them a considerable tonnage of human suffering, alongside the manna of GDP growth.
Say it were true a baby like this one was dropped, and not by accident. History suggests that once the story broke, the authorities’ response would be an immediate muddying of the waters – lest the world assume that a Chinese citizen, who had committed a first illegal act by having a child out of wedlock, was pushed to commit a second through fear of repercussion, with the second being an offence against human conscience.
The one-child-per-family policy was introduced in 1979, to restrain China's already 1bn-plus population. Since then parents have needed permission from the Communist Party to have a baby. In order to get that, they need to provide the state with a marriage certificate. Minus these two things, it becomes very difficult for a child to acquire a resident’s permit, a document needed to attend school. As Sky News’ Lisa Holland put it, these add up to mean “China has very few single mothers”.
We know that Baby 59’s mother was single. She is 22. According to recent reports, the young woman only kept the child because, without the absent father's financial assistance, she could not afford an abortion. Any which way you approach this story – except from the miraculous conclusion – it looks like a travesty. The mother deserves space, sympathy and a second-chance.
The state, on the other hand, deserves scrutiny. It is not the case that China’s authorities ignore baby-dumping: the Ministry of Civil Affairs has established a number of welfare hospitals around the country explicitly to cater for abandoned children. But anybody who remembers The Dying Rooms (1995), a British documentary about China’s overstocked orphanages, will know from what depths the country has to rise: “I did not know human beings could treat children with such cruelty”, said its producer, Kate Blewett. “Some of the orphanages we visited were more like death camps”.
Education, openness and a softer touch are the only things that can help here. Flushing the problem away simply will not.