Civil Liberties

Thank Deng Xiaoping for Little Girls

The tyrannical roots of China's international adoption program


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 Descendants'
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.

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.

Two Reunions
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.

Something else I didn't anticipate was how wrenching the experience of taking Mei from her caretaker would be. Our first daughter, also adopted and now 14, was born in Brooklyn and came to live with us when she was 3; she spoke English and had already gotten to know us. In Mei's case, I did not give sufficient thought to what a terrifying trauma it is for a 17-month-old to be taken from the only home she's ever known, separated from the women who have been raising her, and peremptorily handed over to complete strangers who look, smell, and sound different from anything to which she's accustomed. Although we were anxious about the first meeting, we thought of it as a happy occasion, because that's what everyone else seemed to expect. Instead, it was a heart-breaking scene: 10 families crammed into a conference room with 10 screaming toddlers who had no means of preparing for this baffling betrayal.

Mei cried for hours and remained subdued for weeks. One exception occurred when she saw She Mei Yi, who had slept in the crib next to hers at the orphanage, in a hotel restaurant a day or two after the handoff. Both girls' faces lit up as they lunged for each other, as if to say, "I thought I'd never see you again!" Then they began enthusiastically biting and slapping each other—their way of expressing affection.

During a recent trip to Boston, where Mei Yi now lives, Mei was again reunited with her former crib neighbor. Although they were soon playing happily together and looking forward to future visits, the meeting was much less dramatic than the encounter at the hotel in Changsha. The two girls, now 4 years old, did not remember their early connection as much as their parents' stories about it, and they were no longer desperate to see a familiar face. But I don't want to forget the joyful relief of that first reunion, which reflected the misery caused by government policies that break up families and disrupt young lives. As grateful as I am for the opportunity to see Mei every day and watch her grow up, I realize that in a better world we never would have met.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.