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One Woman's Struggle to Aid China's Orphans

Zhang Shuyun blew whistle on state neglect

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 1996

WHEN Chinese pediatrician Zhang Shuyun was transferred in 1988 to the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute, China's premier orphanage, she soon learned of a practice called ''summary resolution.''

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Dr. Zhang, who spent 10 years at a medical research institute prior to her job at the orphanage, found that ''resolutions'' were invariably aimed at abandoned infants, often girls or those physically disabled. Medical care and food were drastically reduced, and the children were often sedated or beaten and abused. In time, the orphanage medical staff examined them and wrote a formal ''consultation.''

Zhang was shocked to find that no child receiving a consultation - more than 1,000 during her tenure - ever survived. Such children would eventually be placed in a ''waiting-for-death'' room before they died.

In her first US appearance last week, Zhang described how her outrage over the practice propelled her down a four-year road of organizing petitions, detailing abuses with fellow doctors, and pressing for action by everyone from Shanghai City Council members to the then-Communist Party secretary in Shanghai, Wu Bangguo, who is now a vice premier of China.

Zhang - who became an international whistleblower earlier this month after Human Rights Watch/Asia issued a report based on her findings at the orphanage - also offered details on what she said was a practice of withholding food from the orphans in order to select the healthiest for potential overseas adoptions.

''Any real doctor going into a place like that would immediately have conflicts,'' said Zhang, who was fired in 1993. ''It went against medical ethics, against my conscience. As a mother, you can't take it and you want to do something.''

Zhang's records, documents, and photographic evidence of abuse and neglect at the Shanghai orphanage provided the basis of ''Death by Default,'' a 394-page report by New York-based Human Rights Watch that describes what it says is a China-wide policy of ''fatal neglect'' of abandoned children.

Zhang said she thought at first that officials would press for change. ''I had total confidence the government would intervene once it knew what was going on .... The process of disillusionment took a long time,'' she said.

Chinese authorities vigorously denied the report, saying it was ''totally without foundation.''

Human Rights Watch officials admit it is impossible to put together a statistically accurate account of orphan treatment across China. But based on the Shanghai example, other testimony of journalists and doctors, and government documents, the human-rights group charged that ''the majority of abandoned children admitted to China's orphanages were dying in institutional care.'' Some 60 percent of the children placed in orphanages die during the first year, the group asserts.

In addition, Human Rights Watch/Asia said that two of Zhang's colleagues were detained late last year in what appeared to be an effort to intimidate critics of the government's management of the orphanages, according to a Reuters report. One, a former member of Shanghai's legislature who pressed for an inquiry into the allegations, has been held without formal charges since November. Another supporter of Zhang's was detained for seven weeks and then released.