Of courtesy and Chinese orphans

Replying dutifully to letters is not worthwhile, especially where campaigners are concerned
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The Independent Online
Answering mail has always seemed to me a sacred duty and, although I have not always managed it, I have spent many thousands of hours and pounds struggling to cope with all kinds of missives, flattering, frightening, foolish or friendly. Now the worm is on the turn. I am steeling myself to bin without mercy, because answering letters is a courtesy too far in a world without scruple. A case in point is my correspondence with the Dying Rooms Trust.

If, as I did, you lingered abed long enough to catch the last hour of GMTV on Wednesday, you will have seen a handsome young English couple with a bonny Chinese baby girl. They told how they had been so moved by The Dying Rooms documentary shown on Channel 4 in June that they had given up their place high on the list for adoption of an English-born child and shelled out pounds 10,000 on a trip to China. They seemed not in the least cross that when they got there they didn't have the thrill of rescuing an infant from the brink of death but collected a well-cared-for child from a well-run institution. Of all the overseas adoption stories I have ever heard, this one was startlingly light on official obstructionism, deliberate stalling and delay and attempts at extortion. And never a mention of the Dying Rooms Trust.

The Dying Rooms Trust was set up in the immediate aftermath of the emotional shock caused to this caring nation by the documentary. Its stated aim was to "tackle the greatest ongoing tragedy the world has ever seen, namely the institutionalised cruelty and even murder of around 1 million abandoned children a year in China". According to its publicity, "the mortality rate in China's filthy, overcrowded orphanages is a horrifying 79 per cent." Clearly the young English couple went to a different China. I, too, have been to a different China. A trustee of the Dying Rooms Trust wrote to me in August asking for my support in raising funds (how else?) and informing me triumphantly that the trust was to be the beneficiary of the autumn appeal in the new series of Anne and Nick.

One of the most baffling attributes of the English is their tendency to believe that they would make far better parents of other people's offspring than they do of their own. Charity after charity begs us to save the children. (And this in a country where fathers spend less than five minutes a week in close contact with their children.) I greatly distrust our interest in other people's progeny and I distrust it even more in the context of the criminalisation of a quarter of the world's population. In China gaily dressed children are to be seen everywhere, perched on the handlebars of their fathers' bikes, snoozing on their mothers' backs, being held over the gutter to pee, always in close contact and communication with adults. The Chinese don't dub children adorable and then ignore them; they actually enjoy their company. To swap a child-centred culture for one that prefers the company of dogs seems to me no bargain. So I thought hard about the trust's letter for two weeks and answered it at length. I argued that, if you really believe that the situation portrayed in the documentary prevails all over China and is the result of official policy, the solution is not to export a handful of children to an alien culture but to put pressure on the Chinese government. To exploit such a lamentable situation as a way of completing British families strikes me as wrong from every point of view.

It would be extraordinary if serious inadequacies in child-care institutions could not be found within a peasant nation of a billion people. It would be equally extraordinary if the Chinese authorities had been delighted that foreigners had found them. What response could Chinese television producers expect to a request for permission to make a documentary on child abuse in English institutions? Would the Chinese have reason to argue that such abuse is institutionalised and condoned and universal? It certainly takes us a helluva long time to get around to doing it.

The orphanages full of girl children are the result of the widespread implementation in China of the draconian one-child policy, which has only now begun to be condemned and that palely, because we want fewer Chinese even more passionately than the Chinese do. In 1984 I wrote in a largely misunderstood book called Sex and Destiny that "We do not wish to hear that Chinese policy is brutal because we need to feel secure in the certainty that we do not need to oppose it. Our support of drastic policies soils us by association and coarsens our understanding of what is meant by democracy." It is too late now to suggest that we could remedy the situation by adopting a few hundred unwanted girl babies. The Chinese have proved that they can perform miracles; the work of eradicating the historic preference for boy children will be done by the Chinese, if it is done at all.

Clearly, I shouldn't have bothered to explain my misgivings about the Dying Rooms Trust in a letter to Diana Holmes. My reward for this courtesy was to be pilloried as a "maverick" in an inexcusably sensationalist double- page spread in the London Evening Standard, featuring an appalling picture of a naked, emaciated child at the point of death. If, as most of those approached by the trust probably did, I had binned the original letter and held my peace, I'd have saved time, energy, money and wear and tear upon the soul.

The tendency to exploit private correspondence for newspaper coverage is not limited to the harder edge of fund-raising. The average punter has realised that a letter from a celebrity is money in the bank. A few weeks ago I had a letter from a disabled man who had written a novel, which he wanted me to help him to get published. I read the terrible stuff he sent, and answered him at once in the person of my assistant: "Dr Greer has asked me to return your print-out with her apologies. Any endorsement that Dr Greer would offer would have to imply that she considers your work to be of outstanding quality. She is sorry to have to say that in her honest opinion this is not the case. This is not by any means to say that it is unpublishable."

Even publishers don't return unsolicited manuscripts. From now on, I won't either. Then I won't get the letter telling me that the man is dead, and my "harsh and unkind words" the last letter he got and destined to be, with "all reactions from the 100 famous people he approached for help, published in the newspapers".

That settles it. Bin, bin, bin. All those demands for funds to put deserving people through drama, law or art school, bin. All those befuddled requests to explain what fuck-me shoes are, bin. All those 20-page hand-written screeds explaining the meaning of life, bin. All those reproaches for things I didn't say, bin, glorious bin. All those demands for my favourite poem, recipe, book, colour, into my big new shiny black garbage bin. No more filing and cross-referencing. I will save only the stamps for the hospital. No more queuing in the spectacularly inefficient post office. Calloo callay!