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10 January 1996

Killing China's Independence

The Channel 4 documentary 'Return to the Dying Rooms' would have been better entitled 'Return to the Empire', writes Jennie Bristow

The documentary screened on Channel 4 on 8 January concerned the treatment of babies in Chinese orphanages. Allegations of chid abuse, human rights abuses and sexual discrimination were thrown at the Chinese from groups as diverse as Western politicians, human rights campaigners and promoters of population control. As Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind prepared for his visit to Beijing, the British media increased their pressure upon him to provide an open condemnation of the Chinese government.

But did the response to 'Return to the Dying Rooms', emotional as it was, really indicate a wave of compassion on the part of the British public? Or did it represent another, more sinister agenda?

Much has been made of the Chinese government's one-child policy. Yet orphanages such as the Shanghai Children's Welfare Institute, in which children are abandoned and die as a consequence, are not unique to China. Had the makers of 'The Dying Rooms' wished they could have found many similar examples throughout the less developed world. So why was China singled out?

As Hillary Clinton's attack on China's record of human rights abuses at the fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing last year showed, Western politicians love an excuse to have a go at the Chinese authorities. In such a game of who holds the power, Chinese women and Chinese babies become mere pawns.As for the British viewing public who rushed to make donations to the 'Dying Rooms Trust', the condemnation of Chinese orphanages shows a complete lack of understanding about the problems faced by people living in poor rural communities the world over.

Where poverty exists, harsh decisions are made about who lives and who dies. Not so long ago it was the case in Britain that many unwanted or unfortunate children died in care as a result. It is lack of development and resources that causes poverty and suffering not the personal predilections of orphanage workers.It is a mistake to believe that children everywhere can be treated as they are in the West.

It is also a mistake to believe that every orphanage in which children are neglected should be treated in the same way as one might treat an abusive Children's home in Islington. The makers of 'Return to the Dying Rooms' should face up to the fact that what causes this infant suffering is poverty, not spite, and what needs to be done about is the provision of more resources not the spilling of crocodile tears.

Jennie Bristow is the coordinator of GenderWatch, a group founded after the Fourth UN World Conference on Women to monitor the use of the gender issue in international affairs. She can be contacted at: genderwatch@easynet.co.uk
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