Everybody knows that, even despite progressive movements in the past one hundred years or so in some cultures, our society is generally male-dominated. Most religions, in the strictest interpretations of their texts, put the male as the primary gender and the female in a subservient role. Eve was created to serve Adam, and all that. Inflammatory as it is to some - hopefully most - of you, it is a cold truth. This gender preference has lead to unsatisfactory (to say the least) conditions for women in some cultures around the world, particularly in parts of Asia and the Middle East. For various reasons, like the dowry system in India, bearing male offspring is highly preferable to bearing females. Although much reform has taken place in India, in some areas infanticide is still performed on unwanted female babies. In China female infanticide, in the strictest sense of the term, is not often performed. However, depending on who you believe, female babies are given to overcrowded orphanages and experience a pitiful life of neglect and disease leading to an almost inevitable young death in the "Dying Rooms."
The Dying Rooms is also the name of a 1995 British documentary on the subject and may be responsible for the genesis of the term. In the documentary the filmmakers supposedly visit orphanages in China and film female infants and toddlers living in starvation, filth, and disease living out most of their short lives either chained to their infested beds or in brief visits to the outside, not receiving adequate emotional or physical attention. These are unwanted female babies dropped off there because of the one child rule that China had adopted to address issues of overpopulation. A great number of couples in China, if you believe this documentary and numerous articles out there on the subject, if they were to only have one child, there's a great preference to have that one baby be male. And if they are to have two and pay the penalty, it's certainly not worth it then to have the second child be a girl. So they solve the problem by simply giving them away to facilities that may or may not be able to care for them - where they will likely live in what many people - and the producers of the documentary - have termed the "dying rooms."
One article on China's dying rooms depicts them as hovels where dozens of newborns are piled four and five high in rusty cots or on filthy mattresses, their little heads peering out from torn bed sheets or blankets. The children are dirty and covered in old food, snot, and sometimes even excrement. Sometimes they do get to sit outside, though. Another article depicts rows of female toddlers sitting on bamboo benches in a courtyard with buckets below them to catch their waste, listless and seemingly devoid of awareness due to a severe lack of stimulation. One even allows a small boy to approach her and relentlessly head-butt her. They sit and rock endlessly, probably their only source of pleasure. They are chained to the benches, and when they return to their rooms at night they are chained to their beds as well.
Most of the children in these orphanages are girls but there are some little boys, most of which suffer from some sort of physical and/or mental disability. The one child policy in China has made it imperative that the one child be a healthy male, financially and physically able to care for the parents once they reach old age, since it is Chinese culture for the girls to become part of their husband's family once they marry.
The one child policy seems to be the major culprit in this apparent upsurge in infant female neglect and mortality. In the 1950's, after the People's Republic of China was formed, efforts from the government to crack down on female infanticide caused female infant mortality to sharply decline. However, in the 1980s, after the one child policy was adopted, infanticide and abandonment went up. Seeing this linkage, the Chinese government allowed families in rural areas to have one more child if their firstborn is a female. Despite this effort a World Health Organization report in September 1997 claimed that fifty million women in China were "missing." In 1999 a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences claimed that there were 111 million men in China unable to find a wife. This desperate need for wives has given rise to a slave trading industry where women are "bought" for marriage and forced into said marriages.
Do the Dying Rooms Exist?
"I did not know human beings could treat children with such contempt, such cruelty. Some of the orphanages we visited were little more than death camps." - Kate Blewitt, producer for The Dying Rooms
There appears to be some debate as to whether or not the dying rooms actually exist. China denounced the BBC documentary, denies the dying rooms exist and even denies that any sort of female infanticide occurs in the People's Republic. The British documentary, to the contrary, focused on an infant named Mei-ming in an orphanage in Guangdong. Blewitt et al slipped into the institution and its "dying room" by posing as members of the American Children's Fund. If you listen to the Chinese authorities this was not their only deception. The Brits made an example of Mei-ming, the pitiful, emaciated little girl who died shortly after their visit. Mei-ming was not supposed to be any exception but rather a rule, a sign of a much larger problem of abandonment and neglect of female infants in these rooms for dying. However there are reports out there that counter this claim and blast the British documentary team for twisted truths, fabrications, and staged photography.
According to a Chinese publication called People's Daily, the British Dying Rooms team filmed in a warehouse in the Huangshi City Social Welfare Home in the Hubei Province and that most of their documentary was sheer fabrication. A nurse by the name of Liu Qiuliang recalled catching a cameraman filming an area with old trash, mattresses included, in the back of a warehouse where no children were located. She even went so far as to say that the man carefully placed certain articles, presumably trash, on the mattresses before filming. The People's Daily also says that The Dying Room's claim that over eighty children died in that welfare home in 1994 is a total lie. It does contrast with official records kept by the home that state that they began with 161 children at the beginning of 1994 and by year's end 128 of those 161 were adopted. This would only leave 33 unadopted children. But, if the Brits were right, would it not behoove the administration and staff of the welfare center to alter or falsify such an embarrassing and damning record of 80 child deaths, especiallyafter the documentary was aired?
The Duanzhou District Welfare Home in Zhaoqing City, Guangdong Province, where Mei-ming was located, was also a stage for more lies by Blewitt and her team, according to the People's Daily. They claim that Mei-ming was actually a little girl who was found on the streets - sick already - on February 20, 1995. She supposedly received medical treatment as soon as she arrived. The team, when making the documentary, told the nurse caring for Mei-ming to stay outside the sick child's room while they did some filming. Then they later claimed that nurses hardly ever came into the little girl's room. And then, the PD claims, even despite the region being in the cold dead of winter while the documentary was being filmed, and the fact that the child was ill, the producers removed the child's warm quilt and unbuttoned her clothing. The nurse tried to stop that, but Blewitt had the child stripped to her waist and filmed for fifteen to twenty minutes. And they left her like that upon their departure. This suggests that perhaps the crew themselves played a part in Mei-ming's demise which came a short time later.
If you believe the People's Daily the producers of the documentary also lied about a woman who was forced to have an abortion when she really had herself sterilized after having three children. The PD also blasts supposed lies told by other institutions like The Human Rights Watch(Asia), which had also reported maltreatments of children in welfare institutions in China. Most of the information in that report, says the PD, was provided to the HRW by an unreliable source: a woman named Zhang Shuyun who was fired from one of the homes and bitter about the whole ordeal.
Is the People's Daily, and for that matter the Chinese government, to be believed? Are the Dying Rooms just a hoax, or an exaggeration based on a few isolated incidents? Is this possible despite the numerous reports by respected institutions to the contrary? The question of bias rears its ugly head almost right away. Reports of the dying rooms tarnished China's already bad record of human rights abuses alleged by the world community which include the aforementioned side effects of the one child policy and the disaster at Tiananmen Square in 1989. It's not unreasonable that the Chinese would want to cover the Dying Rooms up, or perhaps deny them because they don't want to believe they exist. Statistics by researchers stating that as late as 2001 there were 118 boys for every 100 girls born keep fueling the public relations monster that the Chinese government is combating. Statistics like that, in addition to research that states that every year a million female fetuses are aborted and tens of thousands are abandoned, are embarrassing, to say the least. Stories, like the one recounted by a woman scavenger named Chen Rong, are compelling. She claims that she finds baby girls all the time in the trash and has taken five of them in and has cared for them. Are thousands upon thousands of baby Chinese girls condemned to live out short lives in dying rooms, or simply thrown away every year? Or is that an elaborate hoax perpetuated by the likes of hungry documentary producers like Kate Blewitt who will do anything for a good story?
In any event, because of possible biases, the burden of truth lies with China. They have more of a reason to cover up or deny the dying rooms than the filmmakers have to make them up. It is difficult to imagine a board room meeting over at Channel Four where executives and/or producers toss around an idea of making up Dying Rooms and deciding which country to pick on. Even if some of it was made up, it had to be based on something. It is very doubtful that a country with only minor difficulties in some of their orphanages would all of a sudden have fingers from many other countries in the world pointing at them and making up all those statistics. The deplorable conditions for abandoned baby girls in the dying rooms is a hard pill to swallow, but the fact that it all could be a huge conspiratorial lie is an equally hard sell.
Thanks to DejaMorgana for pointing out that it would be quite naive to think that Channel Four would never come up with sensational stories that "feed on people's xenophobia" and that that sort of thing happens often with the news media and I tend to agree. I did note the accusations by the PD, though. I would like to take this opportunity to say that I personally have nothing against the Chinese, any and all I've ever met especially. As one can see from my other, similar write up, I have taken a particular interest in child abuse/murder across the globe. Maybe it is because I have recently become a father.
Thanks to teleny for pointing out that the phrase "dying rooms" was used by Cordwainer Smith and if this is true then the genesis of the term was certainly not because of the 1995 documentary.