Linda Shum President/International Director Chinese Orphans' Assistance Team.

This woman has spent 20 years helping China's 'throwaway kids'

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.


Chinese girl Fu Xiao Xiao with Linda Shum in Gympie, in 2011. Photo Renee Pilcher / The Gympie Times
Chinese girl Fu Xiao Xiao with Linda Shum in Gympie, in 2011. Photo Renee Pilcher / The Gympie Times Renee Pilcher

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 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.


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.
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. Contributed

"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."

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