Published in The Guardian 12 October 2012
Chen Jianyi is 17 months old. She has spent all but the first few weeks of her life in an orphanage in Shanghai. But Chen Jianyi is not an orphan. Somewhere in China, the parents of this little girl with fine, dark hair, fair skin and black eyes are most probably alive. No one except her mother will really know why Chen Jianyi was abandoned in a local hospital in the city’s Qibao area. When she came to the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute one month after she was born on April 30 last year, her birth date was all the history she had. Chen Jianyi was a healthy baby girl who had been left amidst the anonymity of a busy hospital, with nothing but her clothes and a scrap of paper indicating when she was born.
She is one of tens of thousands of babies abandoned in China each year. Like all the other children who end up in the orphanage, Jianyi was given her surname, Chen, according to the year of her admittance – each year, a different name is picked for the new arrivals. In a basket in the room she shares with 23 other babies, Jianyi’s name and date of birth are written on a small card, along with the number of the cot where she spends most of her day. Downstairs in the office, each child has a bigger file, but for many there is very little written on it – their story has only two fixed plotlines: they were abandoned, they came to the orphanage.
Yesterday, a new child came to the orphanage. She was abandoned on the street in the suburb of Xiuhu. From there, she was taken by a passer-by to the local police station. This is the most common procedure with abandoned children. They stay at the police station for three days while inquiries are made to see if their parents can be found – mostly they are not.
Sometimes, the child will have a handwritten note in a pocket, explaining why their mother felt compelled to abandon them. Some say, “I am sorry, I am too poor to keep the child”; others say that the baby was born out of wedlock, or that the child is disabled. Sometimes, there is just a label with a date of birth tied around the child’s wrist or pinned to their jacket. Infrequently, there is a little money, too. Often, there is nothing at all, the parents perhaps fearing they might be caught – though it is common currency, it is illegal to abandon a child in China.
Mostly, the babies are abandoned in places where there is little doubt they will be found – in parks, by the roadside, on doorsteps, in restaurants, shops and public toilets. Only occasionally are they found on rubbish dumps and drainage ditches. While there may be instances of infanticide, it is rare. However, tradition, culture, poverty, lack of education and the country’s one-child policy combine to make abandonment a major issue in China. And of the thousands of babies abandoned each year, the vast majority are girls.
Healthy boys are never abandoned in China; only disabled ones. The birth of a boy is cause for celebration, the birth of a girl is “small happiness”. Traditional Chinese sayings put it like this: “There are 36 virtues, but to be without heirs is an evil which negates them all”, and “A daughter married is like water poured out the door”, because Chinese culture dictates that when a girl marries she leaves her own family and becomes part of her husband’s.
After three days, when the forms have been filled in at the police station, an abandoned child is taken to a nearby hospital for a check-up and from there to the orphanage. Sometimes, their parents will be sought through appeals in local newspapers.
The child who arrived at the orphanage yesterday is around three years old and is suffering from fever; staff say “her spirits are not high”. Her arms and legs are tied to thin, wooden splints, because it is suspected she has cerebral palsy. Her eyes stare blankly. Beside her are very sick babies, one whose face is covered in scabs, another whose body seems shrunken. Sometimes, babies are abandoned because their parents cannot afford to pay for their medical care.
Next door is a room full of newborns and babies who are just a few months old – the air smells of milk formula. Many of these very young babies, if healthy, will be adopted abroad, for which the orphanage receives a “donation” of $3,000.
Chen Jianyi lives in the Snoopy room in the Rose Garden wing of the orphanage. So does Zhang Fenghong, who was born on September 3 2000, and was admitted to the orphanage nine days later. She had been found near a factory across the river in Chuansha. She had a cleft palate, which has now been operated on. Apart from superficial scarring, this little girl with the ponytail pulled on top of her head looks like any other child her age. It is hoped she will be adopted soon. In 2000, 52,000 “abandoned children” were adopted, according to official statistics.
Then there is Chen Feixuan, who was found crying under a table in a restaurant in Minhang. The police were called on January 13 last year, but the only information they gathered was that Feixuan was born on January 2 and was probably abandoned because her right arm was deformed.
In the Snoopy room, 24 stainless-steel cots are lined up side by side in rows, each holding a baby and a bright, pink quilt. Underneath each of the cots is a little pair of moccasin boots. There are only three ayis, or carers, for all these children. While these women are very loving, they cannot give concentrated individual attention, and so the babies – aged around 18 months – are mostly left in their cots. Some lie down, others stand clutching the metal bars, staring out in search of affection, needing to be touched or picked up by someone.
There is very little noise in this room, except the odd utterance of “mama”, which the ayis coach the babies to say. The air has the faint whiff of pee, but is strangely still considering it is a room full of babies. At this crucial age in their development, they have little in the way of stimulation and never leave the orphanage. The orphanage director Zhang Shuping says that 95% of the children are disabled, but to western eyes this is simply not the case. Children with one slightly deformed ear are marked as “disabled”; a girl with burns to her hands is “disabled”; so, too, is a baby born prematurely.
In another room, in the Iris garden wing of the orphanage, newborn babies are sleeping quietly. Again, there are 24 cots in rows, though only 18 are occupied because some babies have already gone for adoption. Here, five of the babies are boys and 13 are girls. Asked how they manage to get so many babies to sleep at the one time, one of the ayis explains that “they are used to a schedule here”. The orphanage has changed dramatically in the past few years. The Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute was opened by British and American nuns in 1911, and was taken over by the government when the communist regime swept in following revolution in 1949.
In the mid-1990s, it was the focus of massive controversy following the publication of a report by the civil liberties group Human Rights Watch and the screening of a Channel 4 documentary, The Dying Rooms, in 1995, that filmed children being left to die in secret rooms in the orphanage. The HRW report, entitled Death By Default, claimed in January 1996 that “most orphaned or abandoned children in China die within one year of their admittance to state-run orphanages”. It accused the government of a “policy of fatal neglect”. It said that the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute had “practised a deliberate policy of child murder in numerous cases”, and cited a mortality rate from the late 1980s to early 1990s that “was probably running as high as 90%”.
There was an international outcry. A furious Chinese government dismissed the programme and the HRW report as “lies and fabrications”. The exposés resulted, nevertheless, in a huge number of international adoptions, and prompted a slow but radical shake-up of how China cares for its abandoned children. Directives went out from Beijing that standards must improve. And in 1999 the law was changed to allow Chinese couples to adopt abandoned children, something that had been banned in 1991.
In September last year, the old building of the Shanghai Children’s Welfare Institute – cold, grey and in a terrible state of repair – was closed. Each child was assigned to a soldier, who personally transported them to a new building on the outskirts of town; it is now renamed the Shanghai Children’s Home, in a bid to revamp its image and reflect some of the western models of care it has tried to adopt.
This is clearly a showpiece orphanage, grand in design, with a clocktower that is a mock of Big Ben and plays English nursery rhymes. A promotional video for the home says, “From the outside, it is often mistaken for an amusement park”, and “The first word many children learn to speak is mama”.
Demographers estimate that there are many millions of “missing girls” in China, the victims of gender-based abortion and abandonment. That shortfall was reflected in the results of a national census, released last May, that revealed there are now 116 males for every 100 females in China.
Shame, as well as the law, means that Chinese women will only very rarely discuss why they might have left their child for the state or someone else to bring up. In 1998, Professor Kay Johnson and two other colleagues interviewed 237 families who abandoned children in the 1980s and 1990s. Almost 90%, 212, of the children abandoned were girls, and 86% of the total number of children were reported to be healthy. From those women who were prepared to talk, they found that most babies were abandoned not far from their birth parents’ home, and half said they were able to discover what happened to them.
In their study, reported in Population and Development Review, the researchers said, “The typical profile of an abandoned Chinese child is a healthy newborn girl who has one or more older sisters and no brothers. Although most girls are abandoned because their birthparents already have daughters and want a son, girls are not readily abandoned; most parents abandon their female infant only after they have reached the limit imposed on them by the birth planning authorities.”
Last month, a new Population and Family Planning Law declared that “discrimination against and maltreatment of women who give birth to baby girls or who suffer from infertility are prohibited. Discrimination against, maltreatment and abandonment of baby girls are prohibited.” It also said that the “use of ultrasonography or other techniques to identify foetal gender for non-medical purposes is strictly prohibited. Sex-selective pregnancy termination for non-medical purposes is strictly prohibited.” But implementing the law, which only really puts into writing past policies, will be difficult.
From his office in the former British consular general’s building on Shanghai’s famous Bund, Xia Yi, deputy director general of the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, the body locally responsible for one-child policy, tries to explain it. “Usually, people think family planning law stipulates that one couple should have one child, otherwise the nation will punish you and force you to have an abortion. Actually, it’s a comprehensive law that concerns population development and family planning. It is very necessary because China is the most populous country in the world,” he says [its population is 1.3 billion]. “The government and state advocates that one family have one child to improve the quality of the population. The new law allows some families to have more than one child.”
A second child is now permitted if the first is born with a disability; if both parents are only children; and, in rural areas, if the first child is a girl, the family is allowed to try for a boy next time. For those who break the law, there are fines, more than £3,000 for one out-of-quota child. Xia admits that the fines discriminate against the poor: “In the countryside, we have the so-called black babies, who are not registered. Of course, we cannot catch 100% of new babies being born.”
The problem of abandonment is not prevalent among the educated Shanghainese, he says. It is caused by the migrants who come to China’s klondike city looking for a new life. “One of the challenges we now face is how to practise family planning policy in the floating population – immigrants from other parts of China. In Shanghai, the people’s concept of fertility and childbearing has been changed dramatically. That view is connected with economic development. In rural areas, they have the traditional view of more sons, more happiness,” he says.
“In the country, they only have a piece of land and no pension. They think, when I am older and weak I cannot do all the work, I must have a son to work my land. With more education, maybe their mindset would change. Gradually, this will happen.”
Wang Luning, deputy director of Shanghai Women’s Federation, agrees. “The development of the national economy is the most important way to do away with this kind of thinking,” she says. “The second thing is education – as long as people witness that girls are just as capable as boys, then this will eventually stop. This way of thinking will slowly move across the whole of China, and abandonment should stop completely within the next 50 years.”
Xia thinks the problem in Shanghai may also have specific causes. “There are a lot of immigrant women who might have a sugar daddy and are seduced by those men, maybe they will get pregnant. Thinking of the woman’s health, you cannot give her an induced abortion, it’s risky. After the baby is born, there is not a happy family to bring it up, and maybe the woman abandons it because she cannot afford to bring up the baby.
“In China, the economy does not develop evenly across the whole nation. In the rural areas, people think Shanghai is a fantastic wonderland. They come here and they find it is not easy to have a good life. Some will become victims of those bad guys.”
Shanghai’s migrant population is believed to be around three million unregistered people. The prosperity of the city, which has boomed since communist China’s markets were opened up, brings the usual dreams of streets paved with gold. There are sleek highrises whose windows burnish like precious metal in the mid-afternoon sun. And many of the avenues in the city’s French Concession are lined with high-end designer stores, including Hermès, Chanel and the like. But, beyond this, there are street children and other homeless people sleeping around the railway stations, their straw mats scattered on the ground, their belongings stuffed in bags around them. Then there are the migrant workers on construction sites who live in temporary lodgings. And along the more sleazy Julu Road, a street lined with bars, girls work the strip, enticing men inside for drinks. Prostitution is illegal in China, but it still exists. Those who are more privileged say it is from these areas that Shanghai’s abandoned babies come.
One crucial change to emerge from the controversies of the 1990s is a groundbreaking project that allows children from orphanages to be fostered by Chinese families. A British social worker, Robert Glover, who works for the UK-based charity Care for Children, has cooperated with the Chinese government to establish a foster care project that allows children to be placed with local families, rather than remain in institutions. Care for Children’s mission is “to enable China to benefit from the experience of the UK in developing family care and to avoid mistakes that can lead to placement breakdown”.
Glover says, “In the UK, we had discovered that alternatives to institutions were really the way ahead, and I knew that this was the key in China. I moved out here with my family in 1998, after visiting an orphanage where not only were the kids desperate but so were the staff. I remember this little boy just running out with shoes on that didn’t fit him and were bent over at the back. He got hold of my hand and he was showing me his sores and it really just burned me. Here I am back in England with kids in care moaning about whether they are going to get £70 for their birthday from the state.”
For the first three years, Glover’s project was funded jointly by Britain’s Department for International Development, and the Chinese. Now he relies on the Chinese grants being matched by fundraising.
Glover is a warm-hearted, driven man who does not want to criticise abandonment, but hopes to make the consequences of the act better for the abandoned baby. Through his work, 500 children are out of the orphanage and now in foster placement in Shanghai, 240 in Kunming and more than 100 in Chengdu. He says, “We want to change a system in a way that would benefit generations of children. It’s not just about 500 kids in Shanghai, but about impacting on the whole social welfare system. The Ministry of Civil Affairs said it wants 50% of children in orphanages to be in family care by 2005. It seems an impossible task, but that vision isn’t too far off.”
Care for Children has now drawn back to allow the Chinese to run the day-to-day fostering. Glover is concentrating on training orphanage staff, many of whom have been sponsored by the charity to attend courses at the University of East Anglia.
The orphanage director, Zhang Shiping, explains that foster families are paid a minimum of £42 a month in the project they call “Let Orphans Enjoy the Warmth of Family Love”. She says, “Our first choice is adoption, then it is fostering. The development of the foster children and their personalities and intelligence is much faster than children in the home.”
One of the first to be fostered through the project was eight-year-old Xu Peiwei, known as Weiwei to her family. The Li family is wealthy; with its swimming pool and gated entry, its maids and driver, theirs is not the average Chinese family home. But they are typical of those who foster abandoned children: they are in late middle-age and wanted to fill a gap in their lives.
Li Gongwei, 51, a lawyer, and his wife, Huang Wanbin, 51, fostered Weiwei in 1997 when she was three years old. When she arrived, the only word she could say was mama. “She was a little bit strange,” says her mother. “She came here as a blank sheet. She didn’t know anything. She didn’t even know how to watch TV. There were too many children in the home and there were too few staff. They could not hear her spirit. All they could do at that time was to feed and clothe them, but nothing else. We have such a big house and, now my son is away at university, we feel a sense of loneliness. It would also give me a sense of being a whole family, a complete family. Because of policy, we could not have a daughter.” Li adds : “It is better for society to realise that we care for children and give them a sense of the home. Children in institutions don’t get listened to.”
At 3pm, Weiwei bursts in the door, a whirlwind in green trousers and necktie. She is clearly used to having visitors around her and the sight of foreigners prompts her to say “Hello” and “I live in Shanghai, I love Shanghai.” She plays the piano and sings “one little, two little, three little rabbits” in English.
On her wrist is a red, terry towelling band with a watchface in the middle. This was her special reward this week from her daddy, after she got a good report card at school. Li explains: “When she was in the orphanage, she didn’t have any contact with the outside world. There was a limit on her. She now has the warmth of the family, and the love. She knows that she is from the orphanage, but she is not willing to let people mention that because, for her, she has a family. She knows that her real mum abandoned her and that her new mum took her away from the orphanage. When she grows up, this won’t be a problem for her because she will know that we love her.”
Huang Wanbin brings a shoebox from upstairs – in it is a small pair of black patent-leather shoes, a brightly coloured T-shirt and a pair of leggings, the clothes that Weiwei was wearing when she came from the orphanage. Weiwei laughs and tries to squeeze her feet into the baby shoes. Her own memory of her past is confused. “I know that when I was three years old my mum abandoned me,” she says. “I cried and cried on the street. The teachers at the orphanage brought me there; and then my mum came to see which one was a good baby and they brought me to this good family. I came in a white car and it was so good to come here.” To show how good, Weiwei writes out in her jotter: “I love home, I also love my mummy and daddy and brother and the whole family.”
Like Weiwei’s foster mother, Ping Shuimei, 53, felt a lack because she had only one child, and had been lonely since retiring from her job in a fish shop. She is the foster mother of Tang Yishu, nine, a deaf girl she fostered aged four in 1997. Her own daughter is an English teacher and had learned sign language, so they felt that they had something to offer the little girl. Tang Yishu believes that this is her real family and that she was in the orphanage because they were too busy to look after her. She will go on believing this until she is told her real story when she is older, or at least the little of it that is known. Ping Shuimei says,”It is our duty to make up for what happened to her.”
China is discovering that many families are willing to open their doors to its abandoned daughters. Gu Changgen, 54, an aeroplane designer, and his wife, Xia Ailing, 53, a retired accountant, have fostered seven-year-old Tang Yelan. In his sunny, top-floor apartment, Gu laughs and says, “According to our ages, we should be her grandparents. Sometimes people look at us strangely and maybe think that we didn’t do things according to family planning. Our son says we should tell her to call us her grandparents when we are outside home, but what she lacks is parents, so let her call us daddy and mummy. She has made an older man a younger one.
“After she comes back from school, I help her with her homework. I also teach her painting and drawing and dancing and handwriting. She has improved a lot, but still seems to be a little bit delayed.”
Gu is not sure why Yelan was abandoned, but he thinks about it daily. “She looks like a little girl from another province. It may be that it was because she has weak eyesight, or because of the one-child policy. Another reason is maybe because the mother had the baby before marriage. The parents haven’t been responsible and loving to that little child, and that makes us very sad.”
Chen Jianyi has yet to be as lucky as Gu’s daughter. She remains in the orphanage, where nothing is her own, not her clothes, nor her toys, nor her identity. She can only wait until an adoptive or foster family come and give her all of these