In June 2004 at a hotel in Changsha, a caretaker from the Hengshan County Children’s Welfare Institute handed my wife and me a 17-month-old girl the orphanage had named She Mei Chun. We stayed in China for another week or so after that, filling out forms, going to appointments, and getting to know our new daughter. In case of trouble while we traipsed around Changsha and Guangzhou, we had a note in Chinese, supplied by the U.S. adoption agency that had brought us and 18 other couples to China, informing suspicious bystanders that we were adopting Mei, not kidnapping her. It wasn’t necessary. China sends thousands of baby girls abroad every year, and people in the places we visited were accustomed to seeing Americans and other foreigners walking around with children to whom they clearly are not biologically related.
Which is not to say that we and our fellow travelers attracted no attention. Wherever we went—on the street, at the department store, in souvenir shops and restaurants—people would gather around, oohing and ahing, poking and patting, and yanking down the girls’ sleeves and pant legs. (It seems to be conventional wisdom in China that a baby cannot be covered up too much, even during a sweltering summer.) I could not understand what these bystanders were saying, but the gist of it was clear: What adorable little girls!
This reaction surprised me, and not just because strangers in China are, by American standards, overly familiar with other people’s children. The reason we had come to China, I had assumed, was that these girls were not wanted there. The combination of a traditional preference for boys with the Chinese government’s limits on family size had led to the widespread abandonment of baby girls, and the fact that the government had resorted to shipping many of them overseas suggested that homes could not be found for them in their native country. Judging from the continued export of girls, they were not nearly as popular in China as they were in other countries, where parents were eager to pay substantial sums of money and go through an arduous bureaucratic process for the privilege of raising them. The bystanders’ delighted reaction to Mei and the other girls from her orphanage seemed to contradict this assumption.
As I gradually realized, the truth about Chinese adoption is more complicated than the conventional story about Westerners who magnanimously take in China’s unwanted girls. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say these girls are “unwanted” only because the Chinese government has made them so. Although the government’s oppressive, family-destroying policies have had the incidental benefit of bringing joy to the lives of adoptive parents in the U.S. and elsewhere, it will be a great victory for liberty when such heartwarming stories stop appearing on newsstands and bookshelves. These adoptions would not be occurring if the Chinese government did not try to dictate the most basic and intimate of life’s decisions.
Finding the Foundlings
In 2006 about 6,500 Chinese girls were adopted by Americans. Roughly the same number were adopted by people in other Western countries, including Canada, Spain, Germany, France, and the U.K. But these 13,000 girls were just a fraction of China’s abandoned children, the vast majority of whom are female. The Chinese government has estimated there are 160,000 orphans in China at any given time; in her 2000 adoption memoir The Lost Daughters of China, California journalist Karin Evans notes that human rights activists say the number of orphans “is undoubtedly far higher—perhaps ten times the official count, or more.” Between a government that is not known for its openness and outside observers who are forced to guesstimate (and who may have their own reasons for exaggerating), the relevant figures are maddeningly hard to pin down.
In her 2004 book Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son, Kay Ann Johnson, a professor of Asian studies and politics at Hampshire College, reports that conditions in Chinese orphanages have improved since the early 1990s, when the mortality rate at an institution she studied in Hubei province approached 50 percent. The “model” orphanages from which Westerners adopt children presumably are better staffed and equipped than the orphanages that house children deemed unadoptable. Even among the institutions specializing in overseas adoptions, some seem better than others. On our trip, about half of the girls came from the Hunan orphanage where Mei was raised, and almost all of the rest came from an orphanage in Guangdong province. The girls from Hunan were noticeably healthier than the girls from Guangdong, many of whom seemed to have respiratory infections.
The Hunan orphanage encouraged visits, and my wife, Michele, went there along with several other parents. She found it to be clean though spartan, and better staffed than she had imagined, with two caretakers per room, each of which contained eight single-occupancy cribs. More important, the caretakers, who cried upon relinquishing their charges at the hotel in Changsha, clearly were very attached to the girls, and vice versa. (Further testimony to the strength of this relationship: Mei, who evidently did not understand the note that said we were not kidnapping her, screamed for hours before I was able to distract her with toys, and she refused to let Michele hold her until after we returned to the U.S.) The Guangdong orphanage, by contrast, did not allow visits, which probably is not a good sign.
In any case, the orphanages Westerners know about are a fraction of the total, and many abandoned girls do not end up in orphanages. Even by the Chinese government’s account, something like a dozen orphaned or abandoned girls are left behind for each one adopted internationally. What happens to them?
Contrary to the impression that abandoned Chinese girls are unwanted, many of them are adopted domestically. Johnson notes that adoption—of girls as well as boys—is firmly rooted in Chinese tradition. Indeed, historically it was more accepted in China than it was until recently in the U.S. Johnson reports that the Chinese government registered more than 56,000 domestic adoptions in 2000, about 11,000 from state-run orphanages, the rest “foundlings adopted [directly] from society.” She believes informal adoptions dwarf the official numbers, perhaps totaling half a million or more each year in the late 1980s, when registered adoptions ranged between 10,000 and 15,000 annually.
These informally adopted children, overwhelmingly girls, never make it to orphanages and are instead raised by kindly strangers or by friends, neighbors, acquaintances, or relatives of their parents without the government’s blessing. Because such adoptions are not officially recognized, the children are not eligible for a hukou, the residence permit that allows access to school and other benefits. In addition to the hardships associated with lack of a hukou and the expense of raising another child, couples who adopt informally risk penalties for skirting limits on family size. But they take the girls in anyway.
‘Daughters Are Also
Surprisingly, until 1999 Chinese couples who wanted to adopt faced the same family size restrictions as couples who wanted to reproduce. Those restrictions, known loosely as the “one-child” policy, were first imposed in 1979 by Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and are still in force. Deng was convinced that curbing population growth was a precondition for prosperity, although demographers generally find that the relationship runs in the opposite direction, with people choosing to have fewer children as they become more affluent.
From the beginning, there were exceptions to the one-child rule. For example, members of 55 officially recognized non–Han Chinese minorities, who together represent about 8 percent of the population, have always been allowed two children per family. The limits tend to be tighter in cities than in rural areas, where some 75 percent of the population lives. Beginning in the mid-1980s, most provinces adopted a “one-son/two-child” policy, which allows a couple whose first child is a daughter to try again for a son. In addition to the variation in official rules, there is wide variation in enforcement, both over time and from one locale to another. In some places and times, Johnson reports, unauthorized pregnancies prompt crushing fines, mandatory sterilization, and forced late-term abortions. In others, local officials may look the other way or back down in response to the pleading of parents or the anger of their neighbors.
This sort of give and take was apparent in May, when a population control crackdown in the Guangxi autonomous region provoked rioting in which “as many as 3,000 people stormed government offices, overturned vehicles, burned documents, and confronted officials,” according to a New York Times report. Residents were angry about fines and compulsory abortions aimed at enforcing family size limits that evidently had been ignored for years. A local official, even while blaming the unrest on “backward ideas about birth control and the rule of law,” conceded that “it’s also possible that problems exist in the government’s birth control work.” Another local official told Reuters the government’s response to over-quota pregnancies and births, which included destroying the homes of parents who failed to pay heavy fines within three days, “got out of hand”; he promised “the methods will be adjusted.”
You might assume, as I did, that the government would waive family size limits for couples volunteering to raise children who would otherwise become (or remain) wards of the state. But officials worried that making adoption easier would indirectly encourage more births by allowing parents who had hit the legal limit on children to give a girl up (or pretend to do so) and try again for a boy. So until China’s adoption law was changed in 1999, adoptive parents had to be over 35 and childless (except for parents willing to adopt disabled children). Even now, adoptive parents have to be over 30, and couples who already have children can adopt only from orphanages, where just a small minority of the country’s foundlings end up. In the U.S., by contrast, there are no uniform restrictions on parents’ ages or the number of children they may adopt. The rules vary from state to state and depend on whether the adoption is carried out privately or through a state-run foster care system.
Given the barriers to adoption in China, its frequency, once informal adoptions are taken into account, is impressive evidence that, far from being unwanted in the country of their birth, China’s daughters are highly valued. It’s true that China’s strong patriarchal traditions, according to which sons carry on the family line while daughters become members of other families when they marry, mean parents are anxious to have at least one boy. Especially in rural areas, parents value a boy’s superior strength and expect sons, more so than daughters, to support them in their old age. These longstanding attitudes explain why boys are rarely abandoned in China and rarely end up in orphanages. But the surveys Johnson and her colleagues have conducted in rural China indicate that parents already believe girls are nice too, as the government’s heavy-handed propaganda aims to convince them. (Johnson’s book includes a photograph of a building bearing the slogan, “Daughters Are Also Descendants.”) The idea that a complete family requires at least one boy and one girl is quite common, Johnson says, and many rural parents perceive daughters as more caring and attentive than sons.