The Baby Girl Chinese Population Control Police Couldn't Kill

Beijing, China - Ji Huansheng enjoys the deep sleep treasured by parents of any four-month- old infant. Cradled on the mud bed of her village home, her peaceful face belies the trauma that makes her mother weep, and the drama of her short life. Only her unusual name hints at a tale to be told -- Ji Huansheng means "brought back to life by journalists".

This is the miracle baby who refused to submit to the deadly enforcers of birth control, Chinese-style. They tried to abort her, but she survived. They took her from her parents and left her to die, unclothed and unfed. But Ji did not die, and continues to trouble the authorities who ordered her death.

The bloody consequences of China's "one-child" policy have long confirmed the West's worst suspicions about the Communist giant. Even as Beijing attempts to promote choice over coercion, at a local level, abuses of the system remain commonplace. Yet now, they are also more likely to come to light. The journalists and nurses who saved Ji Huansheng are typical of growing numbers of Chinese who still accept the goals of family planning but challenge its brutal enforcement.

There is no hiding from China's "womb police". On 23 April, Zhang Chunhong was picking through piles of rubbish when they came for her, in Wang Ha village, on the outskirts of Harbin in Heilongjiang province. Despite her padded peasant clothes, Zhang's bulge betrayed her guilt. She was pregnant again, with another "out of quota" child, and this one would have to be terminated.

Family planning officials drove Zhang to hospital in Harbin. An ultrasound scan showed the 31-year-old Zhang was 35-weeks pregnant, well past the government's 24-week upper limit for abortion. Yet the next day, nurses penetrated her womb with a long needle, and injected a saline solution to induce a stillbirth.

Zhang was resigned to the treatment. Even without an extra mouth to feed, it was hard enough raising her three young boys on the slim pickings she and her husband glean from recycling urban waste. "I didn't know I was carrying a baby until I was four or five months pregnant," she admits. "But we didn't have money for an abortion. This time, they said I didn't need to pay."

As she lay in the operating theatre, she heard a baby's cry. The poisoning attempt had failed. "I asked them to show the baby to me," Zhang remembers, "but the nurses refused." Her husband Zhai Zhicheng snatched a glimpse of their newborn daughter. "I saw her and she looked healthy, but when I asked them to bring her back, they told me there was an order not to give us the baby."

"One nurse said: 'She's had the drug, so even if she's not dead, she'll be retarded.' The next day, I asked for my baby girl again, but they said she was dead," Zhai recalls. "I felt a pain in my heart - she was our flesh and blood." The couple, unable to persuade the nurses to show them the child, returned miserably home.

Back in the Daoli District Maternity Hospital, their baby was fighting for her life. Plaques at the entrance praise the "model" and "civilised work unit" within, yet when the director Yuan Yinghua learned on 25 April of the botched abortion, she ordered nurse Wang Weimin to "starve her, or freeze her to death", by leaving the baby girl, wrapped in a gauze cloth, on the open balcony outside the abortion room.

Even in April, temperatures on the Manchurian plain of north-east China remain between 0C and 10C. Snow was falling on Harbin as the baby girl screamed into the chill air. After two hours, nurse Wang could not bear the torture any longer. She brought the baby back inside.

Word of the covert patient spread around the wards. "The first time I saw her, she was less than three days old," recalls nurse Ling Zhihong. When the hospital director saw the baby back in the abortion room, with milk leaking from her mouth, she threatened to sack anyone who fed the child, according to Ling and other staff. But nurses and doctors continued to risk their careers to ask mothers for milk powder, and sneak some sustenance into her. "We could only do it after director Yuan went home," explains Ling, "or when we knew she was busy."

Ji stubbornly clung to life. "We were all amazed at how strong the little baby was," Ling remembers. "Every day, the first thing we asked when coming to work was, 'Is she still alive?'" The scandal began to break on 9 May when a local television journalist rang one of the doctors. "I decided to tell the journalist the truth because I wanted to give the baby a chance to live," explains Wang. "I just didn't know how long she could hang on like that."

When Wang and Ling took the journalist to the abortion room, Ji was missing. A frantic search found her stuffed inside a sterilisation box. The full misery of Ji's "dying room" was captured on camera. So chilling were the images that the TV station balked at airing such shocking material. But five newspaper journalists followed up the story. China's media remains politically gagged but there is a growing leeway on social and human- interest stories.

On 10 May, more than a fortnight since her ill-starred birth, Ji's condition suddenly improved. She received clothing, a bottle, food and a cot. Then the next day, she disappeared. Ji was last seen being taken to Yuan's office, and removed by the hospital's Communist Party Secretary. Concerned that Yuan would literally bury this troublesome case, journalists alerted Harbin police, who quickly located the parents, and two days later, handed over their baby girl, amid a crowd of hospital and government officials.

"I was shocked. I didn't know what to make of it all," recalls Zhang. "One moment, she was alive. The next, we were told she was dead. Then all of a sudden, she comes back to us again. She was so skinny she looked like a little mouse instead of a baby. And she was so dirty. I held her tight and cried for days."

Ji had shrunk from 2.5kg at birth to just 1kg. Her skin was loose, her bellybutton leaked, but she was home with her brothers, aged 11, nine and four. Departing from Chinese tradition, Ji was given neither of her parents' family names. "Without the journalists, she would have died," explains her father.

Zhang's milk had dried up in her baby's absence, adding the unwelcome expense of milk powder to a family of eight, including Zhai's ageing parents. But the greatest burden is the fine of up to 60,000 renminbi. Unless they pay, Ji will remain unregistered in China's bureaucracy, a "black child" barred from state welfare and education.

The family was offered a chance to clear that bill when several officials arrived offering them money to move away. "We didn't trust them," explains Zhai. "We trust the journalists who told us the hospital violated our rights. If necessary, we'll go to court to be witnesses. We want justice."

That may require another miracle. Chinese officials lurk within a protective web of secrecy spun tight with mutual favours. Yet on 25 May, a dozen hospital staff reported Yuan to the police. The drama split the hospital's 43 staff. Some, who had been threatened with pay cuts, manhandled journalists out of the hospital, while others petitioned the hospital's supervisory body to remove the director. Unsurprisingly, both the police and health bureau investigations have dragged. The head of Daoli district public security bureau refused The Independent's request for an interview. "It is forbidden to report on this case," he shouted. "The only thing I can say is that it is still under investigation."

Ever since Beijing set out its family-planning regulations, a sorry catalogue of forced abortions and infanticides has ensured China's infamy in the West. The ratio of girls to boys is now dramatically unbalanced, as rural families use ultrasound to identify and then abort girl fetuses. Yet most Chinese citizens accept the argument that their nation of 1.3 billion people will stay poor without childbirth controls.

Back in Wang Ha village, a confused Zhang Chunhong wipes away her tears. "I still don't understand why they put my baby through so much suffering. No baby should suffer as much as my little girl," she says, hugging her tighter to her thin body, as if worried little Ji Huansheng could be snatched away again at any time.

Pro-Life infonet
26. september 2001