Lost and Found
An abandoned baby on the streets of Shanghai.
Healthy babies do still find themselves on the street sometimes: China's one-child policy continues to produce surplus children, especially in areas where rural people believe boys are needed to carry on the family name and support parents in retirement. The result is that girls are abandoned or aborted. Indeed, only days before my friend stumbled upon Donuts, dead twin girls had been discovered near my own local subway station in a prosperous Shanghai suburb. And in May, a Chinese microblog site carried a particularly striking photo of a newborn girl, dressed in pink and found in a box containing the equivalent of $200.
I knew that I could not simply walk off with Donuts (though I was sorely tempted). I was all too aware that for any eventual adoption she would need the all-important "certificate of abandonment"—and for that she needed to have a police report of the circumstances in which she was found. If I just took off with her, neither I nor anyone else could ever adopt her: I wanted her paperwork to be impeccable.
But paperwork is one thing, and finding a squirming, squalling baby in one of the richest streets in Shanghai is quite another: it unnerved me. I wish I could say I had the presence of mind to look out for the mother (such mothers often lurk nearby to make sure that their baby is safely discovered); I should have taken pictures of the carrier bags, with their eloquent testimony to a mother's devotion; most of all, I should never have let her out of my arms.
Maybe I should have insisted on riding with her in the ambulance to hospital, or on going with my friend to the police station where she was processed for admission to an orphanage. I should not have let him do all of that alone.
But because I have adopted children in China, I knew that the system had to be allowed to work and that, realistically, I had to step aside. It was my friend who had found Donuts, so only he was expected at the police station that night to give his account. It was there that he learned from a police officer that the hospital had made a preliminary diagnosis of a heart defect in Donuts. So instead, I went home and hugged my own kids and fretted over how to help this newest orphan. I started e-mailing and texting friends around the world, and within hours many of them responded with offers of money to repair Donuts' heart. Several of them volunteered to adopt her. Under Chinese law I am too old, and too single, to do so myself; but I vowed that if I could not be her mother I would be her guardian angel.
And so began a frantic race to find and help Donuts. I had no name and no identity number; all I had was a copy of the police report handed to John, as the official "finder", and a mobile phone snapshot of the infant that he'd taken. I contacted a number of foreign charities to see if they could assist. Several of them (notably the Baobei Foundation and Heart to Heart Shanghai) asked Chinese members of staff to try to locate her by offering potential medical help—fearing that if the offer came directly from foreigners it would be immediately rebuffed. They were rebuffed anyway.
About 10 days later, just before New Year, we got word that Donuts, still with no name, was at a hospital in central Shanghai. But when I took my children, then aged nine and 11, to try to visit her—bearing chocolates to soften up the nurses—I was told (doubtless dishonestly) that the hospital had no paediatrics unit. We even looked for her in paediatric emergency—a gruesome experience not for the faint-stomached. When my Chinese colleague inquired after her, by phone, she also turned up nothing. I began to despair that I would ever know if Donuts lived or died—and all because China has suddenly learned to resent the hand that donates to it.
China is still smarting from the national humiliation of having had to export as many as 100,000 babies in the past 20 years. Foreign charities are still allowed to help some of the sickest babies from the poorest provinces; but Shanghai prides itself on being able to pay its own way. Foreign volunteers used to be allowed into the Shanghai orphanage weekly just to cuddle the kids; now they are not. Shanghai wants to make one thing perfectly clear: if its abandoned children need a heart operation, they no longer have to go begging.
I immediately recognised the attitude: a new Chinese self-confidence—some call it arrogance—that has emerged. From babies to banking, China is flexing its muscles. But one of the upsides of that new confidence is that the government has begun to care about what the rest of the world thinks of it. Knowing that, and having failed through other channels, I turned eventually to the information section of the Shanghai department of foreign affairs, and explained my intention to write an article about Donuts—in which I might find it necessary to mention that the system meant I was not allowed to help her.
Their staff quickly located the baby and reported on her condition—she had atrial septal defect (a common heart condition), a large angioma on her right eye and one webbed foot. When she was about four months old, they arranged for me to visit her at the Shanghai City Children's Welfare Institute, where she was taken after her hospital stay.
It was there that I discovered that being a ward of the state in China these days is not nearly so appalling as it used to be. For as China has grown wealthier, so have its orphanages. There are homes in some smaller, poorer or more remote cities that remain grim, but at Donuts' orphanage, visions of Oliver Twist are a distant memory.
Its grounds are beautifully landscaped, the compound is painted in cheerful primary colours and staffing is ample. Today, Donuts is nine months old and is cared for in a large, bright room reserved for babies whose health needs monitoring. Four trained nurses are on duty at all times, for about 20 infants with special health needs.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT's Shanghai correspondent.
Photograph of baby by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.