Sewage pipe baby to return to distraught mother

Survivor: A recovering Baby 59 in the incubator that gave him his name © Getty Images

When images of a wailing baby encased in rusted tubes emerged this week, his mother received a vicious torrent of abuse. But behind the dismaying incident a more complex story has emerged.

One week old and still nameless, his image has appeared in newspapers around the world: a newborn child, blue-lipped and crying, encased in a rusty pipe designed to carry sewage.

Baby 59’ was discovered at 4.39 on Saturday afternoon, when the fire department of Jinhua, China, received a call from a nearby flat. They were directed to a thin pipe on the ceiling from which a distressed whining could be heard. A baby was stuck inside the plumbing.

Firemen took to the tubing with saws, but the child could not be dislodged. Eventually it was brought to hospital, where – two hours after its discovery – the casing was painstakingly prised open. The child was bruised and battered, his heartbeat dangerously slow. But he was alive.

In the four days since these repellent images appeared, they have sparked a national outcry. Chinese citizens flocked to Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) to condemn the parents’ negligence. Many called for them to be thrown into jail, while one user accused them of having ‘hearts filthier than a sewage pipe’.

The assumption was clear: an unfeeling couple had abandoned their newborn in disgusting fashion and left it to die. Even the police appeared to endorse this line, announcing that they were treating the incident as an attempted murder. In the past two days, however, a murkier picture has emerged.

The child’s mother was a single woman who had become pregnant accidentally. In a society where many disapprove of children born outside marriage, that was deeply distressing: the woman kept her baby secret, fearing that she and it would be shunned. When she went to the father for help, he turned her away.

That is how she came to give birth alone and unprepared in the cramped bathroom of her flat. But she did not attempt to kill the child, police have said – in fact, it was she who raised the alarm when it fell into the toilet.

Not just a baby?

What, then, does this incident boil down to? Was it just a horrific accident followed by a rush to false conclusions? Some people think so: the lesson we should learn here, they say, is not to form opinions based on one emotive scene – the reality is always far more complicated than a picture can express.

But to others, the images are still profoundly significant. This child may not have been literally abandoned, they say, but its horrific first hours represent a sad truth: unwanted children born to single parents often go unrecognised by the Chinese government and struggle to find their place in the world. This is a powerful symbol of thousands of children in China and beyond, rejected because of the circumstances of their birth.

You Decide

  1. Should the mother of a child discovered in a sewage pipe be allowed to care for her baby?
  2. ‘It’s just as negligent to allow a newborn baby to suffer injury as it is to injure it yourself.’ Do you agree?


  1. In pairs, conduct a roleplay in which one of you tells the other that you or a friend are pregnant. Try to respond as sensitively as you can.
  2. Baby 59 became a sensation in China because of social media. Try to sum up your own response to the story in 140 character or less.

Some People Say...

“If you can’t look after your child properly, you don’t deserve to be called a parent.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So was this just a one off?
The particular circumstances are unusual. But hundreds of thousands of children are born secretly every year, and many of them are abandoned. In Beijing alone, emergency services deal with roughly 10,000 cases every year. And in crisis-hit countries like Greece, where parents struggle to afford care, child abandonment is becoming increasingly common. So this is just one instance of an important international issue.
What should I do if I think I might be accidentally pregnant?
First of all, find out as quickly as possible – don’t just ignore the issue and hope it goes away. If you are pregnant, there’s no need to deal with it alone: seek advice from doctors, counselors, family or charities like Brooks.

Word Watch

Baby 59
So-called because of the bed he was taken to when he arrived at hospital: incubator 59.
The Chinese state keeps tight control of all the country’s media, including the internet. Many of the websites that are most common in the West (including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube) are partially or totally blocked by a censorship system known as the Great Firewall of China, while web searches are monitored and restricted by the state.
Outside marriage
Under Mao Zedong (China’s first Communist leader) the government’s policies concerning sex were highly conservative. Holding hands in public was taboo and unmarried couples were careful not to be seen together. In the past thirty years, attitudes have become much more relaxed – but some aspects of the old conservatism remain.
In China, a parent is legally required to register their child before it is born. This usually requires a marriage certificate – which, of course, single mothers cannot produce. Unregistered children cannot obtain a resident’s pass and are often denied access to essential government services.

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