CHINA is bristling at allegations that thousands of children, mostly abandoned baby girls, have been starved to death or killed by abuse in state-run Chinese orphanages.
More than 1,000 children died because of brutal treatment in a large Shanghai orphanage between 1986 and 1992, according to a report released Friday by Human Rights Watch/Asia, a New York-based human rights monitor.
Using facility medical records, internal government documents, eyewitness accounts, and national statistics on orphan mortality, the group charged that the "pattern of cruelty, abuse, and malign neglect" is system-wide and done to control orphanage populations.
"The likelihood of survival beyond one year, for a newly admitted orphan in China's welfare institutions nationwide, was less than 50 percent in 1989," the 331-page report continued, contending the threat to China's orphans "now constitutes one of the country's gravest human rights problems."
Stung by the charges at a time when the government is taking a hard line toward dissidents and critics, China mounted a counterattack.
The State Council, China's cabinet, denied the charges as "baseless" and invited foreign journalists to visit the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute, which has been refurbished as a model orphanage and adoption center for thousands of overseas parents.
"We have not yet seen this so-called report," the three-page government statement said. "As far as we know, this report of blame against our orphanages is totally without foundation."
The human rights organization yesterday said the overhaul of one orphanage "does not mean that the policy toward children in state institutions has changed.
"Statistics from 1989, the last year for which national figures were available, show that the majority of abandoned children admitted to Chinese orphanages were dying in institutional care. This is not a single-institution phenomenon," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia.
Meanwhile, the US and European countries are continuing their crusade to persuade the United National Human Rights Commission to pass a resolution censuring China for human rights violations.
In recent months, China's treatment of orphans has been under attack in press reports of "dying rooms" in orphanages. Such rooms, where handicapped or abandoned children are left to starve, have been documented in state-run facilities in Harbin in northeastern Heilongjiang Province and in Nanning in southern Guangxi Province.
The Human Rights Watch report details a nightmare of neglect and abuse, which was known to high-ranking Chinese officials but ignored to avoid controversy. Wu Bangguo, then Communist Party secretary of Shanghai and now a senior leader in Beijing, personally intervened to stop a local investigation into the malpractices to avoid embarrassing officials, the report says.
Citing government statistics, the report showed that the annual deaths-to-admissions ratio at the Shanghai orphanage was more than 75 percent in 1991. That exceeds the 40 percent death rate among orphans in Romania's worst orphanages that same year, the report said.
Robin Munro, Human Rights Watch director in Hong Kong, said "the situation is getting worse as more children are being abandoned" because of China's rigid birth-control policy allowing only one child per family. Because of the cultural preference for male children, most neglected children are girls.
The report says that children were allowed to starve to death or choke on food and milk. Others were tied to beds and potty chairs in cold weather or not fed by attendants who just left bottles in their cots. Records of the Shanghai orphanage show that healthy children often died of malnutrition within weeks of their arrival.
The Shanghai orphanage director was accused of raping young girls and physically beating other orphans. Children who misbehaved were sent to psychiatric hospitals. The report says one infant, Sun Shu died at age three months after being severely malnourished.
Human Rights Watch challenges government contentions of a lack of funds and staff. The abuse did not result from inadequate resources but was a concerted policy aimed at limiting the number of infants and ensuring there were enough funds, beds, and staff for other children, the report says.
Orphanages receiving foreign assistance showed little improvement in conditions. The human rights monitor also questions government estimates of an orphan population of only 100,00 in a country of 1.2 billion people.
The report's case histories and testimony were largely compiled by Zhang Shuyun, a physician at the orphanage, who exposed the abuses and pushed local officials to investigate. Other evidence came from Ai Ming, who grew up in the Shanghai orphanage and secretly took pictures in the "dying rooms" and the morgue. Both left China last year and live overseas.
China has been under attack internationally for its cavalier abuses of human rights. The Communist government headed by President Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng has moved aggressively to quash dissent amid uncertainty over succession to ailing leader Deng Xiaoping.
In December, Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous dissident, was sentenced to a second prison term of 14 years for trying to subvert the government. Mr. Wei was briefly released in September 1993, after serving almost 15 years in jail, but was detained again six months later.