Chinese Adoption: A Complex Narrative of Power Abuse, Sexism, and Unintended Consequences
An image of my identity card from China with personal information removed
Explaining to biological children the scientific mechanics that brought them into the world is enough to make a grown man blush, but my parents explaining to me how and why they adopted me has always been something simple, even beautiful.
“Your birth mother cared deeply about you, but she couldn’t keep you because China only allowed couples to have one child. She left you at a market so that you would be found and taken to an orphanage. We flew halfway around the world to adopt you because even before we met you, we loved you so much,” my mom and dad would say in one phrasing or another.
Throughout my life, I have heard swirling whispers about male-preference in China and abandoned baby girls, but as a child, it didn’t really matter to me. What mattered was that my mom and dad loved me, I had plenty of Legos to build towers with, and Grammy would let me have sips of her Coke when nobody looked--all of the needs of a 6-year-old met.
The data shows the number of adoptions from China by Americans in 2003; An large majority of adoptees were girls under 2 years old
What I didn’t know was that I was one of 6,543 other girls in 2003 adopted from China by an American family. I didn’t know Mandarin or Cantonese or anything about China’s rich culture and history besides the fact that red is a lucky color and my zodiac animal was a horse. I didn’t know about the single-child policy’s enforcement or female infanticide or baby trafficking.
It is only recently that I’ve truly delved into educating myself about where I come from and why I had to leave in the first place.
When I first started researching, I noticed that most of the news articles focused on joyful adoption or heart-wrenching scandals. However, to truly understand the complex nature of international adoption from China, we must first zoom out from individual narratives and learn about the history of Chinese policies and culture.
A Brief Timeline of Events:
1949: People’s Republic of China
1956: Ultrasound was first used for clinical purposes
1958-1962: The Great Leap Forward
1966: The Cultural Revolution
1971: Wan, Xi, Shao; China’s “Later, Longer, Fewer” campaign is launched
September 9, 1976: Mao dies
1977: China establishes a two-child limit (contrasting with their previous guidelines of two children per urban family and three children per rural family)
1979: Single Child Policy Begins
1989: “Over 2,000 high-quality color ultrasound machines were imported”
1992: International Adoption was Allowed
2015: China announces an end to its Single-Child Policy
The version of the story that I was taught in school was that China enacted a policy that prevented parents from having more than one child. This lead to increased abortions, the abandonment of female babies, and the gender imbalance seen today. The truth, however, is more complicated.
Later, Longer, Fewer Campaign
Before the single-child policy was even enacted, China had already begun a combination of propaganda, coercive techniques, and new policies to promote its 晚, 稀, 少 (later, longer, fewer) campaign. With their population inching quickly towards one billion and their total fertility rate (TFR) around 6 births per woman, China was trying desperately to combat the growing population that they feared would impede their economic growth and decrease the standard of living. People were encouraged and sometimes forced to marry later (晚), wait for longer (稀) periods between each pregnancy, and have fewer (少) children.
China’s Planned Reproduction Group had thousands of branches spreading downwards from the national level to smaller, local grass-roots groups that would monitor women’s contraceptive records, menstrual charts, and fertility. Their role was to fulfill the titular task of planning reproduction and ultimately taming China’s uncontrollable population growth. Sterilization of women and men, IUDs, and other contraceptives like pills and condoms were all used alongside abortions as means to decrease the population, contributing to China’s TFR of approximately2.7 births per woman by 1979, a significant decrease from previous years.
Implementation of One-Child Policy
Despite the single-child policy’s name, starting in 1984, China implemented reforms that allowed couples in most rural areas who first had a girl to have a second child after a certain number of years. The policy also granted exceptions for ethnic minorities and eventually, for parents who were both born as only children. To achieve the national goal of a 1.2 billion population by 2000, a lot of policy enforcement was performed at the local level with varied regulation.
However, there were general trends and shifts within the policy.
From 1979 to the early 1990’s, the policy tightened and became stricter, largely enforced through “mandatory IUD (intrauterine device) insertion for women with one child, abortion for unauthorized pregnancies, and sterilization for couples with two or more children.” There were also mass education programs, pervasive propaganda campaigns, and economic benefits and penalties in order to promote the policy.
Born in 1985, Nanfu Wang has created a documentary, One Child Nation, and given a TED Talk on her experiences growing up during the single-child policy’s strictest period. In the film, she interviews people with different perspectives on the policy ranging from hatred to support. Family members, local officials, and a midwife recount forced abortions (including late-term abortions where babies were induced alive and then killed), destruction of noncomplying citizens’ homes and property, and mandatory sterilizations. This hostile enforcement of the policy in some regions led to many parents feeling like they had no choice when they aborted or abandoned their children.
Thankfully, the 1990’s saw more moderate policy and greater freedom for women and married couples to choose contraceptive methods, and it only loosened further with China providing the Compensation Fee instead of forced abortions. However, since the fee for those who disobeyed the single-child policy could be 4-10 times the average family income, many could not afford it, potentially leading to their children being abducted by government officials. In other cases, parents would have their second or third child in secret, but because their child was never officially registered with the government, they struggled in limbo without the rights, education, or documents that citizens deserve.
China continued relaxing the policy until finally declaring an end to it in 2015 as a response, in part, to the aging population and skewed birth ratio due to sex-selective abortions, the abandonment of female girls, and female infanticide.
Was it Worth It?
Some argue that the single-child policy was vital, so therefore, international adoption was the best option to support these orphaned children from a country that had no room for them. The truth is that while China’s one-child policy is often heralded as the sole force decreasing their population, this argument ignores the effects of the “later, longer, fewer” campaign, increasing incomes, and expanding education. Today, China’s threateningly low birth rate shows that, in hindsight, even if it successfully decreased the population from catastrophic proportions, it lasted too long to avoid the pitfalls felt now.
Ultimately, the one-child policy actively created orphans and a plethora of issues without addressing population growth in a manner comparatively better than previous, less drastic measures.
The Missing Girls
Historically speaking, having sons in China was important because males carried on the familial line, were expected to provide for their parents in old age, and performed ancestral rites and labor. Due to a gender wage gap coupled with perceived notions about men’s earning capacity compared to women, many Chinese couples still may view sons as a better avenue for a stable retirement.
Wang’s One Child Nation showed shocking photos of a fetus thrown away with garbage and shared stories of abandoned babies, specifically girls, rotting outside. She recounted how her grandma planned to, “put her in the basket and leave her in the street” if her younger brother had been another daughter. The complexity of sexism and a desperate need for a son portrayed in the documentary echoes throughout China in unique and appalling ways, especially when put under the pressure of the single-child policy.
The prevalent bias led to China’s sex ratio at birth (SRB) peaking in 2005 at 118.6 male births compared to 100 female births. Although exact numbers are unknown, many families abandoned female babies because they already had a daughter and wanted to attempt again to have a son. Despite ultrasounds done solely for the purpose of determining gender being banned, illegal ultrasounds at private clinics and tactics such as bribing doctors for sex screenings have also been used, leading to illegal sex-selective abortions even after the end of the single-child policy.
However, when discussing discrimination against females in China, it is vital to acknowledge that specific actions and beliefs vary from individual to individual, and societal norms, expectations, and preferences are constantly evolving. Many cases of abandonment strayed from the traditional narrative blaming male-preference. Fees for having a second or third child, disabilities, and, even in rare cases, where parents felt like they had too many sons to have another one, are just a few other reasons that parents believed that abandonment was the only option.
International Adoption of Orphans that Were Never Orphans
The narrative about Chinese adoption usually ends with male preference and the single-child policy as being the combined forces leading to a surplus of orphaned girls, but it fails to consider the effect of an international demand for babies, leading to exploitation of an already corrupt system.
The answer varies from one adoptive parent to another, but especially under the single-child policy, China provided a reliable source of healthy infants whose biological parents were unlikely to attempt reclaiming custody. Complexly ingrained stereotypical beliefs about race and economy have also contributed to the western world’s fascination with Asian babies. This is exemplified through the savior-complex of wanting to help someone “less fortunate” (spurred by documentaries like The Dying Rooms exposing harsh conditions in Chinese orphanages), the obsession with female Asian beauty, and the model minority myth.
Social worker Rita Jasper shared an encounter she has had with prospective parents:
People come in here and they say, “Okay, I’m open to adopting a child from anywhere.” I’ll say, “Okay, great. So how about doing a domestic adoption, African American child?” “Ooooohhh, no... it would be so hard for the child.” “Okay, so why would it not be so hard for the child coming from China?” [Here Rita lowers her voice to mimic a parent talking to her in a knowing whisper.] “Well, you know, Rita...” [She laughs.]
In 2018, 44% of children in American foster care were white, and 23% and 21% were non-Hispanic black and Hispanic or Latino, respectively. Adoption in America has racism embedded within its system, shown through how dark-skinned and black children are less favored by social workers and adoptive parents.
The stereotypes about Asian people have evolved since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first federal law to forbid immigration on the basis of ethnicity. It hostilely emphasized Chinese people’s position in America as unwelcome and “other.” Today, it is necessary to understand the growing trend of lighter-skinned, East Asian people being seen in recent years, ironically, as “whiter” and therefore easier to “assimilate.” Part of the popularity with Chinese adoption is simultaneously an expression of anti-blackness and an erasure of Chinese people as a minority.
In damaging ways, the system ignores the complex trauma of abandonment, transnational and transracial adoption, and racism in America by devaluing humans to no more than beautiful commodities to be purchased and consumed.
A photo of me, after being adopted, playing with my sister
Adoptive parents have been fed the narrative that they were helping poor, abandoned infants with no family and giving them a better life, but the dark truth is that an unknown number of babies were stolen from their families, made orphans, and then profited off of.
Although it is demeaning to consolidate a person’s value into a number of dollars or yuans, the reality is that international adoption agencies facilitate the purchasing of children. Chinese supply has and continues to fulfill western demand for babies. When adopting a child from China currently costs $30,000-$34,000, it is not surprising that corruption has and potentially continues to occur.
It is estimated that, “200,000 American children are at risk for being trafficked into the sex industry,” illustrating how the buying and selling of children is a global occurrence. However, the difference between child trafficking in China compared to other countries is that it was largely a direct result of the single-child policy and in direct response to money from international adoptions.
There is abundant evidence that illicit behavior surrounding Chinese orphans occurred, but due to the secretive nature of these exchanges, it is difficult to measure the frequency and volume of baby trafficking in addition to the credibility of sources. However, while researching scandals surrounding babies sold to orphanages, most cases fell into three different categories: i) traffickers kidnapping infants and children, ii) people finding abandoned babies, and iii) the local government officials forcibly taking babies.
Living with Dead Hearts is a documentary that explores the complex issue of kidnappings in China and the parents who endlessly fight to find their missing children. An estimated tens of thousands of children are abducted each year and are sold online domestically or for other reasons such as sex-trafficking. The narrative during the single-child era that female infants were being callously abandoned by their parents. This shielded Chinese orphanages from closer international inspection into whether the babies had been truly orphaned or bought from traffickers.
ii) People Finding Babies
Chen Zhijing, an orphanage worker who brought in abandoned babies she found, is another voice to be noted. The orphanage paid her a few dollars at first for the babies she found, but when international demand for infants skyrocketed in the early 2000s, they began paying $500 per child and requested for her to bring more. Her son, Duan Yueneng, began organizing their family and other connections to find abandoned babies and buy infants from a supplier who claimed to collect unwanted babies from local hospitals. Eventually, he and his family were arrested in 2005. Although his claims cannot be concretely substantified, Brian Stuy, the founder of Research China, corroborates the fact that a lot of adoption papers are falsified with fake information regarding the child’s true origin. However, whether or not the children Duan found were truly abandoned or potentially kidnapped is a question without answers.
iii) Government Officials
Contrary to the one-sided narrative of male-preference, Asian studies professor Kay Ann Johnson, found that many Chinese parents desperately wanted their daughters--a topic expanded upon in her book China’s Hidden Children. One narrative Johnson shares is about a woman named Jiang who became pregnant with her second child in 2003 after hiding her pregnancy from officials. She carefully ate small amounts of food, used a friend’s urine samples during mandatory pregnancy tests, and successfully gave birth to her daughter. However, government officials forcibly seized her nine-month-old daughter despite Jiang and her husband Xu pleading and promising to pay any fines. Their child who they fought for was ultimately adopted internationally.
“She will grow up outside China perhaps believing, according to the dominant discourse on Chinese adoption, that she was abandoned by Chinese parents who did not want her because she was a girl, even though, on the contrary, they struggled to keep her and gave her a name that means ‘victory’ and ‘surpassing a gentleman,’ the daughter of a strong woman who risked everything to give her life, and then lost everything in the gambit.” -Kay Johnson
The idea that China desperately needed international adoption because domestic adoption was nonexistent is blatantly untrue.
China has a long and intricate history with adoption. During imperial times, families who did not have any sons would adopt boys, oftentimes nephews, to continue the male lineage. Both boys and girls were adopted formally and informally, usually becoming fully integrated into their adoptive families.
Although the single-child policy greatly limited the number of eligible families who could adopt legally, in 2000, 10,700 children were still adopted domestically. Some children who were registered with orphanages would also live with a Chinese family in a type of informal adoption while other families illicitly kept and fought for their adopted children.
From parents placing babies at the doors of carefully chosen unrelated families to one father even standing defiantly against officials by adopting a second daughter after his first adoptive daughter was taken away, domestic adoption in China is a long-standing tradition that is irrefutably intertwined with love and a subversion of a simplistic understanding of societal norms.
A graph showing how many children were adopted from China by Americans each year; adoptions peaked around 2005 with almost 8,000 and have dropped to only 819 children adopted in 2019
Chinese Adoption Currently
Despite the hours and hours of paperwork, financial requirements, and months of waiting, Chinese adoption used to be a fairly easy or at least straightforward process for parents who wanted to adopt healthy infants. However, while China has not ended its international adoption program like countries such as Guatemala and Ethiopia, most of the children who can be adopted are older and have disabilities now. Additionally, with the end of the single-child policy and improved economic conditions, domestic adoption in China has increased significantly, resulting in fewer children available for inter-country adoption.
From long-lost twins reuniting to adoptees searching for their birth parents, the international adoption of Chinese children has caught public attention again and again, but the truth about the system has often been glossed over. Being adopted from China is just one fragment of my past, yet it fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life in ways that hours of research cannot even begin to unravel. However, learning about where I come from and why I came here has shown me not only the complex beauties of Chinese culture and its diverse populations, but also that international complicity with the breaching of inalienable human rights in one country can have global ramifications.
International adoption and the single-child policy are both intrinsically entangled with human life, politics, and discrimination. Their stories will never be simple because they are multidimensional stories about multidimensional humans. They must be viewed critically and comprehensively, and this article is only a stepping stone to begin understanding their complex effects.
We must learn about history and our histories to ensure that the horrors of yesterday do not repeat today.
To Learn More:
Movies and Documentaries
China's Hidden Children: Abandonment, Adoption, and the Human Costs of the One-Child Policy
An Alternative to the One-Child Policy (has good context on single-child policy, but it is outdated)
Note: This list is nowhere near comprehensive, and due to the personal nature of adoption and abandonment, it is important to acknowledge that individual narratives do not reflect everyone. However, although some of these pieces are more dated or potentially biased, they are helpful in better understanding the perspectives of different people throughout the evolution of the story of international Chinese adoption.