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Even couples who give up daughters, leaving them in hospitals, in busy markets, at police stations, or literally on the doorstep of orphanages (as our daughter Mei was left when she was about 10 days old), may not be eschewing girls so much as trying to complete their families within the restrictions established by the government. Because of the one-son/two-child rule, Johnson reports, the typical abandoned girl is a second daughter. The thought that Mei (who now goes by Meira, still Mei for short) probably has an older sister who is growing up with her biological parents startled me, since I had imagined parents subject to a strict one-child rule quickly tossing out girls to make room for a child of the preferred sex. Instead parents generally end up raising at least one girl along with the hoped-for boy.
Karin Evans, the author of The Lost Daughters of China, wants to think the best of these parents, especially the mothers. Rather than say her Chinese daughter, whom she adopted in 1997, was abandoned at the market where she was found, Evans prefers to think “she was ‘delivered’ to safety in that busy place—so clearly was it her mother’s intention to save her.” Johnson, who became the mother of a Chinese girl in 1991, soon after the Chinese government began to allow such adoptions, is less sentimental. She notes with dismay that Americans sometimes refer to their adopted Chinese daughters’ abandonment as the Chinese equivalent of “an adoption plan.” She points out the obvious: that newborns left on their own, even in busy areas, are highly vulnerable, and many do not survive.
Yet the parents of these children often find themselves in difficult situations, as reflected in this note quoted by Evans, which accompanied a baby abandoned, like Mei, in Hunan province: “This baby girl is now 100 days old. She is in good health and has never suffered any illness. Due to the current political situation and heavy pressures that are difficult to explain we, who were her parents for these first days, cannot continue taking care of her. We can only hope that in this world there is a kind-hearted person who will care for her. Thank you. In regret and shame, your father and mother.”
Mind the Gender Gap
Although the government prefers to blame the problem solely on the backward gender preferences of Chinese peasants, it seems clear that “the current political situation” results in hundreds of thousands of abandonments each year by parents who otherwise would have kept these children. Evans and Johnson both note that the imposition of stricter population controls in a particular area is predictably followed by an increase in the number of abandoned babies. Limits on family size also encourage sex-selective abortions, which are illegal in China but still widespread. Couples who do not have access to ultrasound machines for determining the sex of their unborn children sometimes opt for infanticide instead.
Meanwhile, China is experiencing a serious gender imbalance. The government acknowledges this problem, although it does not concede that its population policy has anything to do with it. “According to the fifth national census conducted in 2000,” the government-operated China Daily reported in 2004, around the time we adopted Mei, “the ratio of newborn males per 100 females in China has reached 119.2, much higher than the normal level of between 103 [and] 107.” The official explanation: “Gender discrimination against females is quite common in many rural and underdeveloped areas, which has led to artificial choice of newborn babies’ gender by ultrasonic wave. This has reduced the number of female newborn babies.”
According to United Nations development official Khalid Malik, the newborn gender gap could result in something like 60 million “missing” females by the end of the decade, which amounts to about 2 million per year in the three decades since the Chinese government began enforcing population controls. The International Planned Parenthood Federation estimates that 7 million abortions are performed in China each year and that 70 percent of the aborted fetuses are female. That’s 4.9 million girls who are not born, vs. 2.1 million boys, implying an annual difference of 2.8 million. Assuming Planned Parenthood’s estimate is in the right ballpark, it seems that sex-selective abortions are enough on their own to explain China’s gender imbalance.
The task of calculating the gender gap is complicated by China’s
“hidden” population, which includes
illegal, over-quota children and informally adopted foundlings. The existence of this population, whose size is by definition unknown, casts doubt on the reliability of the official census data, which may be missing millions of girls. And here’s one more complication: In a 2005 Journal of Political Economy article, University of Chicago economist Emily Oster argues that hepatitis B infection in mothers, which seems to favor male over female births, may account for as much as 75 percent of China’s “missing women.”
Assuming the gender gap is real (and whether or not Oster is right about the role of hepatitis B), China is facing a sizable and growing population of young men who have no prospect of marrying and settling down, a situation conducive to crime and political unrest—which, as far as the Chinese government is concerned, are one and the same. In August China Daily quoted Chinese officials and academics who blamed “an increasing crime rate, growing demand for pornography, and illegal [forced] marriage” on the disproportionate number of young, single men. “The phenomenon will affect social stability and harmony,” warned Zhang Weiqing, head of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.
Even if much of the apparent gender imbalance is due to “hidden” girls missed by the census, driving so many children underground creates an underclass of officially nonexistent people. Either way, the Chinese government is asking for trouble by continuing to pursue a population policy that makes girls disappear.
No Fatties, Please
Far from regretting that policy’s unintended consequences, the Chinese government is fiercely proud of its population control efforts: The Chinese envoy to a recent environmental conference bragged that his country’s family size limits have helped ameliorate global warming by preventing some 300 million births. Short of rescinding its population controls, which is what a decent respect for human rights demands, the Chinese government should at least remove the legal obstacles that make it harder for abandoned girls to find homes. It should recognize the informal adoptions that already have occurred and remove the continuing restrictions on domestic adoptions that do not involve orphanages. But the government seems to fear that such changes would be seen as a green light to produce more children.
Chinese officials may even be having second thoughts about international adoptions, which account for a small portion of abandoned girls but contribute (slightly) to the gender imbalance and could be seen as indirectly encouraging over-quota births. The number of Chinese babies adopted by Americans peaked at nearly 8,000 in 2005, falling to 6,500 last year. In December 2006 the Chinese government, which already rejected gay couples seeking to adopt, announced new, stricter criteria for adoptive parents that exclude, among others, single people, people older than 50, people with body mass indexes of 40 or more (equivalent to a weight of 271 pounds for someone who is five feet, nine inches tall), people with physical handicaps, people who take drugs for depression or other “severe mental disorders,” people with assets below $80,000, and divorced people who have been married to their new spouses for less than five years.
According to The New York Times, “The restrictions are in response to an enormous spike in applications by foreigners, which has far exceeded the number of available babies.” Since the number of Chinese children who need parents at any given time ranges somewhere between 160,000 (per the government) and 1.6 million (per human rights groups), it seems the demand exceeds the supply only because the government has arbitrarily decided that a small fraction of the children are “available.”
Could it be that the children who are deemed unavailable are so sickly or disabled that no one wants to adopt them? Foreigners do adopt “special needs” children from China, and in those cases the government relaxes its criteria a bit, allowing parents as old as 55. In any event, Johnson’s research suggests the vast majority of abandoned Chinese girls do not have serious disabilities. At the Hubei orphanage she studied, the proportion of children identified as handicapped fell from 98 percent in the early 1970s to 20 percent in 1992, corresponding to the abandonment of healthy girls that accompanied the population controls imposed in 1979. The “handicapped” category, Johnson notes, “is broadly defined to include many minor problems,” such as prominent birthmarks.
For reasons of its own, apparently, the Chinese government wants to keep the number of international adoptions far lower than it could be. Although cynics might suspect the government is deliberately driving up the price of Chinese babies by restricting the supply, the fees charged to adoptive parents have remained pretty much the same in recent years. Furthermore, Johnson notes, this money, while significant to the middle-class parents who hand it over and to the orphanages that get a share of it, is a drop in the bucket of the Chinese economy. Based on estimated in-country fees of $8,000 and 13,000 adoptions (the 2006 number), the revenue amounts to perhaps $100 million a year. (Foreigners coming to pick up babies represent a very small percentage of China’s nearly 100 million annual visitors, so the economic impact of the adoption program is minor even if you consider the additional tourism revenue it brings, which in any event would support the case for expanding international adoptions rather than restricting them.) Concern about exacerbating China’s gender imbalance and embarrassment about seeking foreign parents to raise Chinese girls are more plausible explanations for the government’s decision to restrict overseas adoptions.
Whatever the reason, the artificial limits probably enhance the perceived value of adopting a Chinese girl, which already has a certain exotic attraction for many Americans who otherwise would never have a connection to the Far East. The opportunity to visit China certainly was part of the appeal for me, along with the reliability of the process and the generally good health of the girls. Now that Mei has lived with us for three years, twice as long as she lived in China, the tourism angle seems shallow. But if Michele and I had no interest in walking on the Great Wall, we might not have discovered how much our lives could be enriched by a faceless Chinese bureaucrat’s decision to send us home with a little girl from the Hunan countryside.