SHANGHAI — In February 1988, an abandoned boy was admitted to the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute.
At age 7, he was older than most of the foundlings dropped off at the doorstep of the city's main orphanage, a former Catholic home for abandoned children that had been converted into a state institution by the Communists in 1949.
Doctors determined that the boy was deaf and mute and showed minor motor-coordination problems. Otherwise, he was fairly healthy. He weighed 64 pounds. The doctors gave him the name Jian Xun, using the family name the orphanage was assigning that month to abandoned children.
The boy flourished for a year in his new home, even gained weight. But three years later, on July 17, 1992, Jian Xun died.
The last recorded diagnosis was severe malnutrition. A clandestine photograph smuggled out of the hospital before the boy's death showed his emaciated arms and legs tied to the metal frame of his bed. His head was wedged at an angle between the bars of the headboard. His fearful eyes, like those of a trapped baby rabbit, gazed up from his thin straw mattress.
To the administrators of the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute, Jian Xun, classified as "mentally deficient," was an example of the kind of damaged human goods left for the orphanage to raise.
"Many of the children have been discarded by their parents and left in dustbins," said Shi Derong, director of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau, which administers the orphanage. "The police get them to us, but they are often in terrible condition. Many are severely handicapped."
But according to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based international human rights watchdog organization, the dead boy represents an institutionalized system of neglect found in China's state orphanages that has resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Using documents and case histories supplied by a former physician at the Shanghai institution, the human rights organization in a report of more than 300 pages detailed a pattern of neglect at the orphanage between 1988 and 1993. During that time, hundreds of severely retarded or disabled children were selected to die under a policy euphemistically entitled "summary resolution."
According to the Human Rights Watch report, which uses government statistics to build its case, similar patterns of neglect--tied to China's attempt to handle its massive overpopulation--exist in child care institutions across China.
Chinese officials strongly deny the allegations contained in the Human Rights Watch report. They accuse the group, which did not allow the Chinese government to see or respond to its allegations before the report was released, of conducting "a dark political plot."
On Monday, in an effort to refute the charges, Shanghai officials permitted 20 foreign correspondents in China to tour the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute.
One of those conducting the tour was Han Weicheng, the former director of the orphanage accused in the report of orchestrating the policy of "summary resolution" and of personally abusing some of the children in the institution, including allegedly raping a young girl.
Han tearfully denied all of the charges, blaming them on the thwarted political ambitions of former orphanage physician Zhang Shuyun, whose smuggled hospital records were the basis of most of the more serious allegations.
Han, a specialist on the rehabilitation of children with cerebral palsy, said Zhang's attack began in 1988, when she was frustrated in her attempt to become director of the orphanage. For the next five years, he said, she took her campaign to several levels of the Shanghai government, spurring at least three investigations into the orphanage.
At one point, Han was suspended from his job pending the result of an investigation. "She made accusations against me everywhere, even before the master of the Jade Buddha Temple, the honorary director of the institute."
After Shanghai authorities cleared him of the charges, Han said, whistle-blower Zhang, a graduate of Beijing Medical University, fled to Hong Kong and continued her attack in Hong Kong newspapers--and now in the U.S. human rights community.
"I ask you," he pleaded, "what about my human rights? Who will protect me?"
Despite his claims of being maligned by Zhang, Han confirmed other parts of the Human Rights Watch report, including the extremely high death rate. In 1989, during an extremely cold winter when the electricity in the orphanage failed, the mortality rate for the orphanage reached 19% of its population, or about 100 children.
Journalists made repeated but unsuccessful requests for a detailed year-by-year accounting of the mortality rate in the orphanage.
Han denied the neglect or mistreatment of Jian Xun, the deaf and mute child. "I have never allowed anyone to tie hands or feet to a bed," Han said, examining a photograph of the bound child.