How adoption has become an integral part of China’s global agenda.
At the outset of 2016 the Chinese government announced the end of its decades-long One-Child Policy. Introduced in the early 1980s alongside sweeping economic reforms, it was (and remains) the strictest fertility regulation in history, the goal of which—in the eyes of state authorities—was to cultivate a smaller, more competitive population that could help transform the nation into a global leader. After preventing roughly 400 million births and climbing to the top of the world economy, China has largely achieved these objectives. Yet, tragically, the combination of childbearing restrictions and parental preferences for healthy male heirs also led to the abortion and abandonment of countless female babies and special needs children, many of whom ended up in state-run orphanages. In a process managed by the Chinese government, over 140,000 of these children—primarily healthy girls—have joined Western middle-class families spread across 16 different countries through adoption.
International adoption has mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar industry.
International adoption can be controversial because it inherently mixes care with consumerism—at $20,000 to $30,000 US dollars per placement, it has mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar industry upon which many Chinese orphanages and other service providers have become reliant. Typically, nations that allow outsiders to care for their most vulnerable children tend to be seen as lower down on the global hierarchy. When China first began its international adoption program in 1991, its economy was only beginning to transform, fitting the usual model in which babies tend to be sent from developing to industrialized regions. However, unlike other child “sending” countries, China has continued to place children abroad and accept foreign resources for its orphanages while enjoying unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Why is the Chinese state allowing Westerners to assist and rear its most marginalized youth when it now has the ability to do so itself?
For almost a decade I conducted research in nine different Chinese state-run orphanages, in part to understand and answer that question. For more than a year I volunteered with two Western humanitarian organizations that helped the Chinese state care for institutionalized youth. This extensive period of first-hand work with abandoned children and interviews with Western volunteers, Chinese state caregivers, orphanage directors, and American adoptive parents made clear that international adoption is not solely about finding loving families for unwanted babies. Indeed, were it not for the limitations of the One-Child Policy many local parents would have been happy to adopt these children.
Years of reflection have caused me to conclude that international adoption has also allowed China to enhance its global image. In other words, placing children abroad has functioned as a form of “soft power”—it has augmented the country’s ability to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. In particular, adoption has helped China foster goodwill and stronger relationships with some of its fiercest economic competitors—especially the United States, the primary destination of adoptees—while also attracting financial and medical resources to its child welfare system. The Chinese state has outsourced the intimate care of locally devalued children to Westerners who use their own resources to remake them into global citizens. This process of outsourced intimacy works as an on-going transnational cycle, first through the exportation of mostly healthy girls into Western homes via adoption, and secondly through the subsequent importation of first-world actors, resources, and practices into orphanages to care for the mostly special needs youth left behind.
Placing children abroad has functioned as a form of “soft power”—it has augmented the country’s ability to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.
My analysis is not meant to condemn practices of international adoption or foreign assistance for institutionalized children—many individuals and organizations are doing awe-inspiring work in this difficult field and must be commended for their efforts. Yet it is important to foster a more informed dialogue about these issues to clarify potential misunderstandings held by those less familiar with China’s unique history and socio-economic context. For example, people commonly assume that the nation’s orphanages are overflowing with healthy girls. Although this may have been the case in the 1990s and early 2000s, daughters who were abandoned due to son preference have either been adopted or their parents found ways to pay the heavy fines for bearing another child. In fact, these children—who are arguably the face of international adoption from China—are now largely unattainable: at present, the wait time for Westerners seeking to adopt a healthy infant daughter has risen from only six to twelve months in the early 1990s to nearly a decade. The loosening of fertility regulations will also likely further decrease their availability.
China’s skyrocketing global power and influence means that state authorities now have the freedom to pick and choose among foreign parents, leading to increasingly severe restrictions on their eligibility. In 2007 the introduction of new adoption criteria caused a firestorm in the Western media, due, at least in part, to the faulty assumption that there are millions of orphaned female infants in need of rescue. Currently still in effect for those seeking to adopt a healthy girl, these regulations designated that adopters be limited to heterosexual couples who have been married for at least two years; who earn a minimum income; are between the ages of 30 and 50; have at least a high school education; and have no mental disabilities or disorders, physical impairments, infectious diseases, or a body mass index of 40 or higher.
These new regulations reflect the fact that orphanages today are mostly filled with special needs children who are sick, disabled, and/or older—a group that includes a high percentage of boys. Official estimates state that a baby is born with a disability or illness somewhere in the country every thirty seconds. Chinese cultural norms dictate that offspring provide for their elderly parents; hence, those with any kind of abnormality, particularly mental disabilities, are deeply stigmatized because they might not be able to become productive workers. Despite the urgency of this issue, the Chinese government has provided little to no support for parents with sick and disabled offspring, increasing their chances of abandonment. Rather than offering resources or assistance that might keep these children in their families, officials have gone so far as to label them societal burdens who are hindering the nation’s global economic progress. Meanwhile, the government has increased its efforts to place special needs youth with Western families, thus perpetuating the cycle of outsourced intimacy.
There is no doubt that international adoption has vastly improved the lives of thousands of kids who stand little chance of finding permanent families in their birth country. But it is important to bear in mind that adoption cannot be disentangled from larger national agendas. China has used its own children to construct bridges to the global north, enhancing the nation’s image abroad and signaling its growing international strength through increasingly strict adoption regulations. Consequently, the total number of children it places abroad is dwindling each year. It thus remains to be seen whether international adoptions from this superpower will continue and in what form. Eventually we may look back upon this trend as a remarkable, but ultimately short-lived, phase of China’s path to modernization.