It’s not just newborn babies abandoned in China

Having a baby and bringing it up is an expensive business in a system where welfare provision is poor and materialism counts as much as Confucianism and Marxism

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The case of the newborn baby freed from a sewer pipe in China at the weekend that has horrified and transfixed the world is the tip of an iceberg in more senses than one.

A Beijing newspaper reports that the hospital which specialises in treating abandoned babies in the capital receives a thousand a year on average. Earlier this month, a baby’s corpse was found on a rubbish dump in the city. The Chinese author Xinran has documented a string of such cases starting with a tiny baby girl she rescued from a public toilet in 1990; when Xinran reported the case in a broadcast on the radio station where she worked, the mother called in to say: “My money’s running out. Tell my baby I’m so sorry.”

Money is, indeed, the usual cause of such abandonment; having a baby and bringing it up is an expensive business in a system where welfare provision is poor and the health service is at an early stage of a 10-year development programme. So is the stigma of illegitimate birth. Though the sewer-pipe case in Zhejiang province in eastern China involved a baby boy, gender is often a factor given the preference for male children. It leads to abortions and the infanticide of female babies – a situation exacerbated by the effect of the one-child policy on couples who want their only offspring to be male.

But in a broader sense, this case was part of the social evolution spawned by explosive economic growth which has changed the nature of the country and how its citizens live. Though traditional values still apply for many, they are being eroded by the pressures of urbanisation and materialism – the “ism” that counts as much, if not more, than Confucianism and Marxism in today’s China, with its estimated 317 dollar billionaires, 83 of whom sit in the two houses of the legislature, its flaunting of luxury brands and its thirst to catch up with more affluent nations.

While most recorded cases of abandoned babies are in cities, worse poverty is still very present in large parts of rural China with backward, subsistence agriculture and villages where there is nobody aged over 16 and under 55  because everybody between is off working in the cities.

The number of these migrant workers is anywhere from 150 to 200 million at any one time. Employed on factory assembly lines, construction sites and in services, they form an underclass. They have few, if any, rights to healthcare, education for their children, or pensions – nor can they buy property outside their place of home registration in the countryside. The first generation of migrants put up with this in return for earning far more money than they could have made back home, but their children are less docile and there have been riots in southern towns as they agitate for better treatment.

China has pulled more people out of poverty in a shorter space of time than ever before in human history, but its growing wealth has been distributed very unevenly – the poor have grown less poor in the past three decades of economic reform, but the rich have grown ever richer. The government stopped publishing the Gini co-efficient, which measures wealth disparities from the first 12 years of this century, on the grounds that it could not calculate how much the rich had. When it did come out with a figure at last this January, the number was 0.47 – zero represents perfect equality and one means everything belongs to a single person. This was a less equal score than for the US, Britain, India and Japan. A separate calculation by the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics for the year of 2010 showed a result of 0.61.

The wealth of the rich, including those who have profited from family connections with powerful officials, and the discontent it provokes stand in striking counterpoint to the pursuit of the “China Dream” proclaimed by the country’s new leader, Xi Jinping. When he took on the top job of General Secretary of the Communist Party last November, Xi spoke of the wish of the Chinese people for “better education, more stable jobs, more income, greater social security, better medical and healthcare, improved housing conditions, and a better environment”. They want their children to have sound growth, have good jobs and lead a more enjoyable life, he added. Xi has recognised the political danger of social frustrations, and sought to address the way the ruling party has lost touch with the country’s 1.3 billion people with a crusade to get officials to live more frugal lives and to root out corruption. This has certainly had an effect in making bureaucrats more circumspect, and hit spending on luxury goods and up-scale dining. How long it will continue and how high it will reach remains open to question.

It may seem a long way from the newborn baby in the sewer in Zhejiang to the man who presides over the destinies of the world’s most populous nation and its second largest economy. But Xi is not simply mouthing empty rhetoric when he speaks of the need for the ruling party to “always be of the same mind with the people and share the same destiny with them, and … work together with them and diligently for the public good”.

Growth has been poorly regulated. The result is an accumulation of social and everyday problems. Smog is a recurrent health danger in many cities. Clean drinking water is rare. Food safety is a major issue as rice tainted with cadmium heavy metal, which can cause cancer, joins the list of rat meat dressed up as lamb, suspect mineral water, pork injected with toxic chemicals and milk dosed with melamine to increase its protein count. So in a country where social media circulates news  so widely and so quickly, a story like that of the Zhejiang baby instantly  takes on a broader resonance as people can only reflect on the gulf between reality and the dream outlined by their rulers.

Jonathan Fenby’s book on today’s China, ‘Tiger Head, Snake Tails’, has just been published in paperback by Simon & Schuster

You can read more on Jonathan Fenby's blog

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