Babies don’t belong in sewage pipes. That much the online community in China agrees upon. On May 25, an unwed 22-year-old woman in China’s eastern Zhejiang province walked into a bathroom and delivered a baby whose existence she had hidden from the world. The woman had been hunched over a squat toilet and her newborn boy slipped into the sewage pipe below, according to local journalist Dong Qi. Although the new mother used a mop to try to dislodge the baby, he was wedged into a channel 4 in. (10 cm) wide, says Dong, whose information comes from the local police chief in Pujiang county. Panicked, she tried to cover up what happened, splashing water to wash away the blood. She then informed someone in the building that something was wrong with the toilet.
Soon, firefighters were dispatched to rescue the child from the waste pipe. But the 6.2-lb. (2.8 kg) newborn was squeezed in so tightly that they were unable to extract him. The rescue workers were forced to saw off the section of the pipe with him in it and transport it to a nearby hospital. Baby 59, as he is now known after the number of his incubator, is in stable condition, a tiny presence with a full head of hair and a scraped knee and other bruises from his postbirth ordeal.
When footage of Baby 59’s rescue was released earlier this week in China, in absence of information about his mother, the reaction online was swift and harsh. “What kind of beasts can do such a thing?” posted one user on Sina Weibo, a domestic Twitter-like social-media service, referring to the child’s parents. In the court of public opinion, the young mother, as well as the father who reportedly refused to acknowledge her pregnancy, were quickly tried and found guilty. Wrote another Weibo user: “His parents should be put into prison and never be allowed to touch him again.”
The Internet serves as a crowd-sourcing tool for vigilante justice in China — where the normal judicial system cannot be counted on for dispensing fair results — and it does such an effective job that it’s often nicknamed the Human Flesh Search Engine. Although sensitive content is often censored, the online sphere is still the most open forum available to Chinese citizens, who rarely trust state-run media to deliver news that contradicts the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s version of truth. From discrediting corrupt local cadres and shaming jaywalkers to exposing two-timing spouses and launching online mobs on individuals who mistreat kittens, the Human Flesh Search Engine humiliates with stunning speed.
But in cases that stray into politics, such as a hit-and-run involving an official’s progeny, Chinese state censors soon move in, blocking keywords and discouraging further online discussion. The official dragnet can reach smothering proportions — at one time or another, the name of China’s new leader Xi Jinping and the car brand Ferrari were both deemed unacceptable search-words on Weibo.
Internationally, because he appeared to be an abandoned child, Baby 59 has been thought of as a victim of China’s restrictive family-planning policy, which limits some families to a single child. In the name of furthering China’s economic development by limiting its population growth, Chinese officials have committed abuses ranging from forced sterilizations to mandatory abortions on women just a few days from their due dates. Parents who contravene the government’s family-planning regulations can be slapped with fines several times their annual incomes. Blind legal advocate Chen Guangcheng, who fled to the U.S. last year, gained fame for his work on behalf of women compelled by local family-planning officials to undergo sterilizations and late-term abortions in his home province of Shandong in eastern China.
The pressure to have only one child has propelled some Chinese to either abort female fetuses or kill newly delivered daughters. More than 10,000 abandoned babies ended up in a special Beijing ward over the previous decade, according to the Beijing Youth Daily in August 2012. Female children are traditionally less valued in China and as a result of various sex-selection tactics — many illegal — the country’s gender imbalance between boys and girls reached 117 to 100 in 2012, according to state newswire Xinhua. (The normal ratio is around 102–106 boys to 100 girls.) Demographers predict that by 2020 China will be populated by an extra 24 million marriageable men who will be unable to find female partners, a potentially destabilizing scenario in a country whose government is spooked by any harbinger of social unrest.
Baby 59’s story, though, does not appear to be directly connected to the stresses of China’s family-planning strictures. Indeed, young, unmarried women dispose of unwanted babies all over the world. Nor is it clear whether the pipe baby’s mother even abandoned her child. It is a rare son who is discarded in China, and orphanages are crowded with far more girls than boys. Sure enough, staff at the hospital where Baby 59 is recuperating have been inundated with adoption requests, according to local news reports. Meanwhile, local police, who initially posted on Weibo that they were treating the case as attempted murder, appear to have dialed back those charges. The young mother was taken by her parents to an unidentified hospital separate from the one to which her son has been admitted. She, too, needs time to recover.
— With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing