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

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.

Why China?

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.]