In a Chinese Orphanage

The plight of many Chinese orphans is horrificand much publicized, but behind it lie public-policyconcerns peculiar to China and rarelyacknowledged parallelsin the West

I had been warned, by friends and by the media, about the Chinese orphanage--the dying room for infants and the children being allowed to starve. But I was not prepared. I had expected the dying children to be crying, begging to be saved. Instead they were silent, withdrawn, immobile. They had no expectation of being comforted or saved, or even any obvious awareness of the two women passing by. They were miniature versions of the "Muselmänner" of the Nazi concentration camps, the ones who stopped struggling, gave up living, waited only for death--the ones from whom other inmates recoiled, as though the Muselmänner's resignation were contagious, the kiss of death. Now I, too, recoiled, in an involuntary lapse of compassion.

I cannot mention the real name of the woman who first took me to the orphanage, which is in southern China, in a complex that houses some 300 to 350 children and 250 disabled or elderly adults. I will call her Christine.

The kind of work Christine is doing was one answer to my question about what good, beyond sheer economic prosperity, the Western business presence in China might be bringing to that nation. The question had bothered me during the 1993-1994 debate about whether to renew China's most-favored-nation status. The public discussions had highlighted the gap between Americans who did business in China, most of whom wanted the renewal of MFN status, and human-rights advocates, who by and large supported the Clinton Administration's initial requirement that China first make "significant, overall progress" on issues of human rights. Human-rights advocates were naturally suspicious of business, and the businesspeople's obvious economic interests weakened their argument that their presence in China was good for human rights. I was acquainted with numerous Western businesspeople in China and knew that many had come to love the country. I suspected that some were quietly involved in "good works," serving the cause of human rights while avoiding publicity. My hunch proved correct.

The wives of foreign businessmen and diplomats had formed an association, one foreign businessman and his wife told me over lunch in an elegant joint-venture hotel. They had "adopted" a local orphanage. A small group visited once a week. Most women, particularly those with small children, found visiting the orphanage too painful, but everyone contributed to the children's well-being--toys, clothing, shoes, quilts, screens to keep out the flies and mosquitoes. The couple gave me Christine's number. A resident of China for several years and an active volunteer, Christine was a regular visitor to the orphanage. I called her immediately.


orphan picture

The children who were old enough and able to walk were waiting at the windows when we arrived, broad smiles on their faces. They exclaimed over Christine's oversize bag when we walked in, knowing it would be filled with crackers. Christine had a surprise for them that day--sneakers in bright colors and psychedelic designs, which she distributed to the barefoot children according to approximate size. The children tried them on, jumping and prancing and running, their thumbs up in the universal language of delight. They were an unruly, unsocialized group. Some were handicapped. Others seemed retarded, though the foreign volunteers were convinced that what appeared as retardation was often really a failure to thrive, the result of too little love and attention.

The vast majority of the children, some 90 percent, were thought by the foreign volunteers to be girls, though this was not readily apparent. Their hair was cropped short, institutional-style, and their clothes were unisex shorts and T-shirts. Few of them were actually orphans. They had been abandoned--victims of China's one-child-per-family policy and of the traditional, economically motivated propensity to value males. Males both carry on the family line and provide for their parents in old age. Girls marry and then have obligations only to their husband's family. Rural China has no pension system. The retired depend for survival on their sons.

Recent census figures indicate how badly the Chinese want boys. In 1994 the worldwide sex ratio at birth was 101.5 boys for every 100 girls. In China there were 116 boys for every 100 girls. No one is certain what happens to the missing girls. Some may be aborted after a sonogram reveals a female fetus, though this practice was recently declared illegal. The traditional practice of female infanticide, described decades ago by Pearl S. Buck and Somerset Maugham, may still exist. Some baby girls may not be reported in the census. Rural families are often allowed to have two children. When the first is a girl, some families wait to record the birth until the second child proves to be a boy. Some baby girls are abandoned.

The orphanage I visited is on the outskirts of a city, but the little girls were presumed to have come mostly from rural backgrounds. China is in the midst of what must be the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history. In recent years perhaps 100 million of China's 900 million peasants have moved to cities in search of jobs. The baby girls are left at railway stations, in parks, and in front of police stations. The police are supposed to search for the parents, but most searches prove fruitless. The boys in the orphanage are for the most part severely handicapped, but they are often not abandoned, and may have family contact and visits.

Newly arrived infants are placed in a separate small room, which held about ten baby girls during my visits. Two or three staff members--untrained, minimally paid women from nearby villages who were struggling to support their own families--were on hand for the infants. The babies were cuddly, cute, and alert.

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