AUGUST 7 On July 23, Lei Xiaoyu lay inside a glass-encased crib in the neonatal intensive care unit at Guangzhou Children's Hospital. Reaching through two portholes in the side of the casing, a nurse gently propped up the girl and held a bottle of milk to her mouth. Sucking greedily at the nourishment and paddling her arms in excitement, Xiaoyu's eyes widened and fixed on the maternal figure. The transformation Xiaoyu has undergone over the past three weeks has been remarkable. Doctors estimate she is two or three months old. Yet when she was first discovered, on July 13 in the arms of a child beggar, she weighed only about 2kg. Pictures taken of her at that time are terrible to look at. She resembled a famine victim: grossly distended abdomen, protruding rib cage and sternum, swollen joints and skin hanging in empty folds from her arms, buttocks and legs. 'She didn't look human,' said Li Jinxiang, the young woman who first noticed her with a child beggar on a pedestrian overpass in Guangzhou's northern Baiyun district. 'She was so skinny and underdeveloped. She looked like a creature or a foetus. I thought maybe she had been born prematurely.' Two hospitals would later arrive at the same diagnosis - severe malnutrition. Doctors at the first, Baiyun Red Cross Hospital, told Ms Li it was the worst case of infant neglect they had ever seen and it would be a miracle if Xiaoyu survived. After first seeing Xiaoyu, Ms Li was haunted by her image. 'I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to do. I discussed the situation with my friend. We decided we couldn't put up with it,' she said. The next day, July 14, Ms Li and her friend, Xu Xiaomei, returned to the overpass and waited for the child beggar to return with Xiaoyu. When they appeared, Ms Li phoned the police. Before they arrived, the young girl, who would later give her name as Wang Juan and claim to be Xiaoyu's sister, ran into a neighbouring maze of side streets with the baby hanging listlessly in her arms. 'She held Xiaoyu like a toy,' Ms Li said. A man on a motorcycle finally stopped the girl. After the police caught up with them, Xiaoyu, Wang Juan, Ms Li and Ms Xu were taken to the nearby Xinjingjie police station at about 4pm and, after an hour, to Baiyun Red Cross Hospital. Emergencyroom doctors were reluctant to accept Xiaoyu. 'They just kept asking who would pay for the baby,' Ms Li said. Eventually the baby was put on an intravenous drip. But there was nobody to pay. The girl told police she and Xiaoyu were from Anhui, that their mother had died after Xiaoyu's birth and their father had abandoned them. It will probably never be known if this was the truth. While at the hospital, Wang Juan ran away, and no one has come forward to claim Xiaoyu. Infants are frequently used as props by beggars of all ages in Guangzhou and other mainland cities. It is usually impossible to ascertain whether a beggar with a baby in tow is in fact its parent or sibling - or whether the infant was abandoned, sold or stolen and is being used by a tightly controlled beggar ring. Xiaoyu was exceptional only because of the severity of her condition. Police informed hospital officials they would come back to take Xiaoyu to Guangzhou's only orphanage, even though her condition was so serious that doctors issued a 'critically ill' notice, basically a near-death certificate informing next-of-kin that their loved one is on death's doorstep. As Xiaoyu had not yet been given her name, on the certificate she was identified as wu ming er - or no-name child. When Ms Li and Ms Xu arrived back at the hospital the next day, they found Xiaoyu in a cardboard box on the emergency room floor. Worried that she would die if not formally admitted to the hospital, Ms Li was introduced by another friend, Shan Liping, to a businessman. In a heavy thunderstorm, the businessman, Jiang Xiangping, commuted more than an hour to the hospital from his home on the eastern outskirts of Guangzhou. Mr Jiang, a 31-year-old Guangzhou office director for a Shandong grain and oils company, moved to Guangzhou earlier this year. He immediately agreed to pay the 1,000 yuan (HK$940) deposit needed to admit Xiaoyu to the children's ward. 'We are healthy and lucky. If we encounter something like this we must help,' he said. 'A little bit of money can save her and give her a new life. I also have a daughter. When I saw Xiaoyu I thought of her.' In honour of the storm raging outside, Mr Jiang initially called the baby Lei Yu - combining the characters for thunder and rain. Later it was decided such an apocalyptic name was not entirely appropriate for so tiny a child, and the diminutive xiao, or little, was added. Thus Xiaoyu, or Little Rain, was named. But she was not yet out of the woods. Ms Li and Mr Jiang wanted to transfer her to a better facility, the Guangzhou Children's Hospital. Doctors at Baiyun Red Cross Hospital agreed in principle but said they needed police approval. On July 18, Mr Jiang went to the Xinjingjie police station and met station deputy chief Jian Yaoqin. 'When Mr Jiang first spoke to him, Mr Jian did not even lift his head from his paperwork and shooed us away with his hand,' said Ms Li, who accompanied Mr Jiang. He eventually gave up trying to persuade Mr Jian and resigned himself to the fact that Xiaoyu would have to stay at Baiyun Red Cross Hospital. The next day, however, about 10 officers arrived to take Xiaoyu to the orphanage and ordered doctors to disconnect her drip. Ms Li, Ms Xu and Ms Shan protested and, after the police were apparently dissuaded, Ms Li and Ms Shan agreed to go back to the station with them. It was a ruse. While they were at the station, Xiaoyu was taken away. Mr Jian refused to speak about the case. 'Our decision was made in accordance with regulations. We do not accept interviews,' one of his officers said. Doctors at Baiyun Red Cross Hospital also refused to comment. 'This case was handled in accordance with relevant Public Security Bureau regulations. You will have to ask the bureau about it,' said Dr Zhan Chunmao, vice-director of the children's ward. According to police, doctors and charity workers, those regulations are fairly straightforward. Any abandoned child or infant who ends up in the custody of the police should be taken to an orphanage. As no guardians could be found, Xiaoyu was technically in police care and doctors were therefore compelled to comply with their orders. In practice, police are reluctant to take formal charge of abandoned infants and children found on the streets. Indeed, if they were to do so, Guangzhou's one orphanage would soon be overwhelmed. It is easier to round them up periodically and put them on trains out of the city. 'The police were afraid of taking responsibility. They acted only according to regulations, not their hearts,' Mr Jiang said. 'I was very angry.' He later lodged a complaint with the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau but has yet to receive a reply. He said: 'There are too many people in China. The government doesn't have enough resources to handle cases like this.' In other words, even though the system was forced to accept Xiaoyu, she still fell through its cracks. Remarkably, there were a handful of Good Samaritans to catch her. As Mr Jiang said: 'Not every child is this lucky.' Informed of Xiaoyu's removal, Mr Jiang rushed to the orphanage. 'At first they wouldn't let us in but we insisted,' he said. 'We had to ensure that she was ok.' After Mr Jiang filed a written application and promised to pay all costs, orphanage officials allowed him to take Xiaoyu to Guangzhou Children's Hospital. There, he put down a 5,000 yuan deposit towards her continued treatment. It was an indication of how serious Xiaoyu's condition remained that the hospital issued her another near-death certificate and admitted her to its neonatal intensive care unit, where her rapid recovery began. By August 1, her body weight had increased about 70 per cent, to 3.4kg, and she was moved out of intensive care. By yesterday, Xiaoyu's weight was up to 3.7kg and doctors now expect her to make a complete recovery. She will probably be released from the hospital and sent back to the orphanage in the next few days. Ms Li, Ms Xu and Ms Shan have been taking turns to stay with her round the clock ever since she was transferred to the children's ward. In the meantime, Mr Jiang is trying to find a local couple to adopt Xiaoyu. So far he has talked to at least two friends, including one who has three sons and really wants a daughter. 'We want to guarantee her a good life,' he said.