One might easily see such a thing in a Shanghai alleyway and think nothing of it: a bundle of fabric tied up with a rope. Except that this particular bundle was screaming.
I could not tell at first if the squalling child was male or female, but I knew exactly what it was doing there: a desperate mother had swaddled her newborn infant in several layers of clothing and left it alone in the winter darkness—so that it could have a chance to live.
For me, it was an all-too-familiar story: my own two daughters were abandoned at birth, left alone in a Chinese street to the mercy of strangers. But that was more than a decade ago—a decade in which China has become a powerful force in markets from natural resources to sports cars, from luxury goods to aircraft carriers. In a China of diamond iPads and gold-plated limousines were babies still ending up in anonymous alleyways?
This child's mother had chosen the spot carefully: only steps from one of the best hotels in Shanghai, beside a Dunkin' Donuts franchise patronised mostly by foreigners. I had been meeting my friend John there for a quick doughnut fix, and it was he who heard the baby's cries as he chained his bicycle to the alleyway gate.
"There's a baby outside!" John exclaimed as he slid into the seat beside me, still blustery from the cold. "What do you mean, there's a baby outside?" I asked in alarm, bolting out of the door to see what he was talking about.
What I found was a scene whose every detail spoke of maternal care, and anguish: the multicoloured quilt was bright, thick and tied just so—the corner lay over the child's face, to protect it from the pre-Christmas chill. Beneath the angry bundle lay two plastic carrier bags bulging with brand new baby clothes, tins of infant formula, packs of nappies and scrubbed-clean bottles, the only love note a mother could dare to leave for a child she would never know. China's version of the stork myth is to tell children they were found in a trash can; in the case of the baby in the alleyway, that story was too close to the truth for comfort.
"There, there, little guy," I crooned as I awkwardly picked up the quilt bundle, which immediately stopped crying. The doughnut shop staff had already called the police to report the abandonment, so I knew I would not have long with Baby Doe (or Baby Donuts, the nickname suggested irresistibly by the location). I knew that the police would call for an ambulance, too, that would whisk the child away. So for half an hour I cradled the infant (which I only later discovered was a six-week-old girl) and bawled.
I cried for the baby, for the mother, but most of all I cried for my own children: abandoned at the far more dangerous ages of one and six days old—and in weather possibly far colder. I cried for women I do not know, who were forced to discard the children who became my daughters. I cried for the fact that they may never know their child is safe, and cherished.
I had mourned for those women before: on my children's birthdays I always remember the women who gave them life. But I have never wept as I did holding Donuts. The weight of her body, the soupçon of coldness around the nether regions that suggested a possibly wet nappy and the way she protested when I sat in one position for too long, were altogether too real for comfort. I knew all about abandonment in theory; now I knew about abandonment in nappies.
I suspected right away that Donuts had a medical problem: something about the way her mouth puckered when she breathed, and the fact that she was sweating, gave me a hint; but more than anything, it was the fact that abandonments of healthy infants are increasingly uncommon. Most children in Chinese orphanages now are disabled. To adopt healthy children, foreign parents must wait for up to five years.