A dearth of state-run shelters means that the hundreds of babies abandoned across the mainland each day face an uncertain and even deadly future. Good Samaritans step in when they can, but some children succumb to neglect and the elements. Shenzhen's decision to open a baby hatch next year to deal with the city's annual 90 unwanted newborns is, therefore, a welcome step. But if the numbers are to decrease, such a facility is only a small part of the solution.
The scale of the problem is not precisely known; estimates range to the hundreds of thousands. As elsewhere in the world, the stigma of unwed mothers, the cost of raising a child and teenage pregnancy play a part, but the primary reason is the population-control policy restricting how many children a couple can have. The traditional preference for male heirs has led many families to turn to abortions and abandoning unwanted girls and handicapped babies. As the case of wealthy film director Zhang Yimou proves - recent revelations showed he had at least three children outside marriage and without the approval of family planning authorities - the law can at times be applied unevenly.
A recent relaxing of the one-child policy so that families in which either parent is a single child can have two children will help. But the staggering level of abandonment means that Beijing needs to put in place a far-reaching protection policy. The ill-funded and overcrowded state orphanage system has meant that many babies are poorly treated. Efforts earlier this year to clamp down on child trafficking by making it illegal for citizens to keep children they find also has far-reaching consequences. Non-governmental groups estimate such people had been taking in 95 per cent of the unwanted babies.
Shenzhen's shelter is one of a number of programmes gradually being rolled out around the nation to fill the void. Authorities have pledged parents will be able to leave newborns there without fear of facing charges or needing to reveal their identity. It will have cribs and life-support equipment. Despite its necessity, it is controversial; some people contend it will encourage greater abandonment.
The concerns are understandable, but the nature of the problem makes such facilities essential. Authorities elsewhere have to embark on similar projects as a matter of urgency. But any significant reduction of the numbers of babies being abandoned lies in ending the one-child policy.