CHINA'S top leaders have a special reason for vehemently denying recent disclosures on the fatal abuse of orphans in Shanghai: Some of them helped cover up the deaths.
For these men, the orphanage scandal is most troubling not as a jolt to China's international prestige, but as potential fodder for political rivals in the succession of elder leader Deng Xiaoping.
Many of China's highest ranking leaders today - including Communist Party head Jiang Zemin, party secretariat chief Zhu Rongju, and politburo members Wu Bangguo and Huang Ju - held top positions in Shanghai during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when some of the worst abuses at the orphanage occurred.
All of these men had the power to halt the ''lethal neglect'' of hundreds of innocent children documented last month in a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. But they either overlooked or concealed reports on the deaths while protecting responsible officials beneath them.
Now, locked in an intensifying succession struggle in Beijing, Mr. Jiang's ''Shanghai clique'' is determined to deflect attacks on its association with the scandal. If these officials can't run Shanghai, critics charge, how can they run China?
As a journalist based in Shanghai from 1986 until 1992, I witnessed how the city's leaders squelched repeated efforts by Shanghai city councilors, reporters at state-run newspapers, and other Chinese professionals to persuade them to address the problems at the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute.
For example, five years ago, in 1991, Shanghai city councilor Xu Xinyuan introduced a resolution imploring city leaders to investigate and curb the maltreatment of children, many of whom are disabled, at the orphanage. He was ignored. Mr. Huang was mayor of Shanghai at the time.
That same year, a reporter for the Shanghai Labor News tried to publish an article revealing how underage orphans were illegally forced to work at the institute's tax-exempt enterprises. The reporter's editors suppressed it. The Shanghai Labor Federation spelled out the myriad abuses in a ''neican'' - a confidential report that was forwarded directly to the city's leaders. They disregarded it.
Also, a Chinese legal reporter wrote an article detailing the shocking number of deaths at the orphanage. Again, officials spiked the story. In fact, then-Shanghai party chief Wu issued a directive in 1992 barring all news media from reporting on the topic. Such reports would ''harm'' China's reforms and open-door policy, the directive claimed.
Rather than demand an impartial investigation, Shanghai leaders embraced a report prepared by the orphanage's overseers, bureaucrats at the city's Civil Affairs Bureau. That report shielded orphanage head Han Weicheng and asserted the alleged abuses were ''rumors.''
As a result, orphans in Shanghai continued to be beaten, locked up, tied to their beds, forced to work, and denied adequate food, medical care, and heating. And the children continued to perish at alarming rates.
In the first 10 months of 1991, 211 children housed at the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute died, according to an official bulletin issued to Shanghai leaders by the municipal labor federation. That figure represented 77 percent of the number of new children taken into the center that year, an increase from about 40 percent in the early 1980s, according to a copy of the bulletin I obtained.
Beijing's initial response to Human Rights Watch's report was predictably hostile and defensive. Authorities put under house arrest the brother of Dr. Zhang Shuyun, the former orphanage employee who blew the whistle on the government. They have also detained former city councilor Xu and labor federation official Shi Shengren, who supported Dr. Zhang's cause.
But even if international censure fails to sway China's leaders, political self-interest should compel them, at last, to halt the abuse of the orphans.