The issues posed about the deaths of children in Chinese state orphanages, highlighted in the Channel 4 programme Return to the Dying Rooms, are grave and disturbing enough to merit the most urgent scrutiny and action by the Chinese authorities and the international community.

The programme's careful documentation based, on journalistic reportage, testimony by Chinese statistics and witnesses and substantial research by the US based organisation Human Rights Watch/Asia - strongly suggests that the majority of children in theses' institutions die by neglect or design. The programmed attempted to put these horrifying facts into their essential contexts - the one child policy designed to limit China's huge 1.2 billion population from overwhelming its resources; and the traditional preference in rural China ( where 80 per cent of its people still live ) for male offspring, based on a family structure in which welfare and care for the old depends crucially on the male succession.

Combined, these two factors create a lethal bias against female offspring, which shows up in the highly disproportionate number of girls in the orphanages. But the programme also referred to another significant fact: a projection that by the end of the century there could be a great imbalance of some 70 million between the numbers of young men and women, mainly in Chinese cities. Such contradictions underline the urgent need to re examine these policies on prudential as well as human rights grounds.

It is not good enough for representatives of the Chinese government to dismiss the allegations of child deaths as motivated simply by prejudice against their country, or to retreat into a defensive cocoon justified by international victimisation. If they are serious about opening up to the rest of the world they should expect to address its common concern for human rights. The best response to these reports must be to demonstrate that they are false or misconstrued. Where they are proved accurate, they must be shown to be vigorously addressed by radical reforms and punishment of those responsible in the name of a common humanity.

There are indeed welcome signs of a more engaged approach in the official Chinese response to these allegations. Thus the British Foreign Secretary, Mr Malcolm Rifkind, was able to raise concerns about the child deaths in his meetings in Beijing yesterday without provoking angry denunciations. There has been a conscious attempt to allow journalists more access to check the stories; and, most important of all, there is more and more evidence that many Chinese people, including senior political figures, are shocked and outraged by them, determined to stop such practices and not deterred by spurious resort to the argument that China is immune from such criticism because it is still underdeveloped.

Undoubtedly this programme, and the research on which it is based, pose the most serious challenge to China's international reputation as a state that respects children's rights. It must expect continuing international concern, criticism and calls for action as a result. The picture is uneven. It is certainly not proven that the practice of "summary resolution" by starving unwanted children to death is nationally endorsed. It is very much in China's interest to refute any such an allegation with the greatest determination, despatch and openness.