From a Queens­land town with love

Meet the ex­traor­di­nary wo­man who has spent 20 years help­ing China’s ‘throw­away kids’

Central and North Burnett Times - - LIFE - BY Scott Ko­vace­vic

FIND­ING a one-week old child left un­der an open win­dow in a wet blan­ket, spinal fluid weep­ing from his back, Linda Shum’s first trip to China could be de­scribed as a hor­ror. In­tent on help­ing the coun­try’s or­phans, she was greeted by 16 “bedrag­gled” chil­dren.

Within 10 days of her leav­ing, most of them would be dead. It was an un­fath­omable sit­u­a­tion – one which drove the Aus­tralian wo­man to ded­i­cate 20 years of her life to help­ing an aban­doned gen­er­a­tion.

In 1995 the hor­rific re­al­ity of life as an or­phan in China was re­vealed in a blis­ter­ing doc­u­men­tary.

The Dy­ing Rooms gave a hor­ri­fy­ing look at the hid­den dam­age the one-child policy had on the coun­try.

Con­cerned over the pos­si­bil­ity the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion growth could out­strip its eco­nomic one, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment adopted the one-child policy in 1979.

The idea was sim­ple: limit the num­ber of chil­dren in the coun­try’s ma­jor ur­ban ar­eas, with few ex­cep­tions.

How­ever, its strict poli­cies and penal­ties tied to their child’s sex ul­ti­mately led to a stag­ger­ing num­ber of girls and dis­abled chil­dren be­ing aban­doned by their fam­i­lies.

The policy ended in 2015, but its legacy has been im­mense. Chi­nese of­fi­cials report there are 600,000 or­phans in the coun­try; but other or­gan­i­sa­tions put the num­ber closer to one mil­lion.

The doc­u­men­tary un­leashed a pub­lic out­cry, one which – through a chance late-night read­ing of a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle – en­snared Shum in a decades-long fight to give a fu­ture to the chil­dren who had been aban­doned and ne­glected by a coun­try’s con­tro­ver­sial gov­ern­ment policy.

Shum’s jour­ney started with in­som­nia. Un­able to sleep while at a con­fer­ence in 1997, she started flip­ping through a mag­a­zine pro­vided by the or­gan­is­ers.

While she was look­ing for that per­fect lit­er­ary sleep­ing pill, what she found had the opposite ef­fect: an ar­ti­cle on how chil­dren in China were dy­ing from a lack of mother-touch­ing. “It dis­turbed me greatly,” Shum said.

“How could you leave chil­dren to die sim­ply from a lack of hu­man con­tact?”

She wres­tled with how she could help, faced by the re­al­ity she was ap­proach­ing 50 and had never left Aus­tralia.

De­spite sim­i­lar misgivings from her hus­band Greg, the pull was too great and Shum made her choice.

In Easter 1998 she stepped into a brand new world – a tum­ble­down, filthy or­phan­age which “looked 300 years old” and reeked of dis­in­fec­tant. “It was a ter­ri­ble place.”

But “ter­ri­ble” was only on the sur­face.

Be­neath hid hor­rors that were far worse.

“We re­alised that nearly 100% of chil­dren com­ing in un­der the age of three died, ac­cord­ing to the records,” Shum said.

“They’d just leave them some­where to die and then throw the body in with the next per­son to be cre­mated.”

Many of the chil­dren them­selves were suf­fer­ing from dis­eases or ab­nor­mal­i­ties like hy­dro­cephalus, blocked bile ducts and spina bi­fida.

Un­der those con­di­tions, she said, they never had a chance. What struck most, though, were two chil­dren – one with turned-in feet and one with a cleft lip – who should have lived.

“A cleft lip is easy to fix, you just need to do surgery,” she said.

“Those two kids should not have died. “They died due to ne­glect.”

Shum’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to make a dif­fer­ence was the driv­ing force be­hind her work for the next decade, but she was fac­ing a harsh re­al­ity: she was one for­eigner work­ing to undo more than 30 years of fall­out from po­lit­i­cal policy in a coun­try of bil­lions.

Shortly af­ter The Dy­ing Rooms first aired, jour­nal­ist Jane Hutcheon be­came an ABC cor­re­spon­dent in Bei­jing.

She watched the con­tro­versy ex­plode first hand.

The China she walked into was reel­ing in the af­ter­math of the rev­e­la­tions, at­tempt­ing to ex­tin­guish PR fires ev­ery­where.

She was thrust into an eye-open­ing world that has lasted well be­yond her post­ing in China. The con­tro­versy had a huge im­pact on her then-young ca­reer, so it was nat­u­ral Shum would catch her eye in a rather unique way.

“It was ini­tially a very strange half-writ­ten email that I re­ceived from her which she has no rec­ol­lec­tion of,” she said.

While the email was in­com­plete, the mark Shum’s story made was not.

“I couldn’t get it out of my thoughts,” Hutcheon said. “How on earth does a wo­man from a re­gional place... get up and go to a coun­try she’d never been to be­fore?”

Hutcheon has turned Shum’s story into a book. China Baby Love, pub­lished last month, shines a light squarely on Shum’s

‘‘ We re­alised that nearly 100% of chil­dren com­ing in un­der the age of three died, ac­cord­ing to the records.

I re­ally wanted to tell a story about an Aus­tralian wo­man in a small Chi­nese city.

work. While it is also rooted in pol­i­tics, Hutcheon says Shum’s heart is what she wants peo­ple to see.

“I re­ally wanted to tell a story about an Aus­tralian wo­man in a small Chi­nese city,” she says.

“It was like a slice of real life that peo­ple don’t know what was go­ing on.”

Af­ter see­ing what had gone on and work­ing to fix it, Shum now has an idea of where she is go­ing, and hopes China Baby Love will play a huge part in it.

Hav­ing seen the coun­try go from poverty to pros­per­ity, she be­lieves it’s im­por­tant China it­self stands up for its aban­doned chil­dren, so long left to wither and die in anonymity.

“The chil­dren were not worth any­thing, they were not wor­thy of any­thing... un­til the for­eign adop­tions started to hap­pen and they got US$3000 for each child,” she said.

“It’s time they started look­ing over their own chil­dren.”

With the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, she said there was a chance she would no longer be wel­come in the coun­try.

If so, she said, she was com­fort­able her legacy was in good hands.

“I think I’ve given 20 good years of my life to try and im­prove con­di­tions here.”

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

Linda Shum with some of the Chi­nese or­phans.

PHOTO: RE­NEE PILCHER

Chi­nese girl Fu Xiao Xiao with Linda Shum in Gympie, in 2011.

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

◗ Jour­nal­ist Jane Hutcheon wrote China Baby Love, which is the story of a Gympie school­teacher who has fought for the rights of Chi­nese or­phans for two decades.

◗ China Baby Love by Jane Hutcheon, RRP $32.99 pa­per­back, is out now through ABC Books.

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