China's uncompromising one-child family policy, compounded by strict adoption norms, is pushing hundreds of thousands of girl children underground.
Even otherwise when girl children are given away in adoption, the nation will suffer, warn observers.
The country is on the road to a seriously skewed sex ratio, with all its dangerous implications, they say.
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, notes Jacob Sullum, writing in the Reason magazine..
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.
But then 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.
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.
On the other hand for long laws were aimed at discouraging adoption. Perhaps officials figured that if the laws were liberalized, parents might give over their daughters in adoption and try for male heirs.
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.
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.
So when girls are indeed abandoned because of the one-son/two-child rule, Johnson reports, the typical abandoned is a second daughter.
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, 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."
Hundreds of thousands are abandoned that way 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, "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."
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.
The task of calculating the gender gap is complicated by China's "hidden" population, which includes illegal, over-quota children and informally adopted foundlings.
Whatever the case, 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, Jacob Sullum stresses.