Rifkind raises "dying rooms" allegations with Chinese hosts


THE BRITISH government yesterday called on China to open its orphanages to inspection after allegations that orphans were dying of starvation.

The Foreign Secretary, Mr Malcolm Rifkind, who is in China this week, has asked the Chinese authorities to allow public inspection of the institutions, the Foreign Office Minister of State, Mr Jeremy Hanley, told the House of Commons yesterday.

Mr Hanley was responding to allegations by a Channel 4 television documentary that many deaths due to negligence were taking place in "dying rooms" at a Chinese orphanage. He said anybody who saw Channel 4's Return to the Dying Rooms on Tuesday would have been "profoundly disturbed" by the allegations.

The documentary examined a report from the New York based Human Rights Watch/Asia alleging China's state orphanages had let thousands of babies, many of them unwanted girls or disabled children, die from medical neglect and starvation.

Chinese authorities have rejected the charges and a Chinese government spokesman said yesterday: "Dying rooms do not exist in China." He added: "The overall situation is good. Not only has it improved, but it is getting even better."

The Labour foreign affairs spokesman, Mr Derek Fatchett, told the Commons: "Such treatment of children is totally unacceptable."

Mr Hanley told him that "the best way for people's minds to be set at ease" is for the Chinese "to make sure that relevant authorities can investigate the charges".

In a separate development, Mr Rifkind yesterday said he was "encouraged" by the Chinese Prime Minister, Mr Li Peng's reassurance that Hong Kong's autonomy would be respected after the 1997 hand over.

However, Mr Rifkind acknowledged that crucial matters concerning the future of Hong Kong's ruling legislative council, and the appointment of a chief executive to assume the role currently undertaken by the colony's governor, Mr Chris Patten, remained unresolved.

He was speaking after China's state controlled TV quoted Mr Li as saying he would not appoint any mainland official to hold office in the government of Hong Kong after Beijing resumed sovereignty next year, or remove a single penny from Hong Kong's government coffers.

Beijing would take over the British territory under the principle that "Hong Kong should be governed by Hong Kong people", Mr Li was quoted as saying in a meeting with Mr Rifkind.

Mr Rifkind acknowledged that the Chinese Prime Minister had not said anything new. "But the fact he chose to say it on state television . . . could be significant."