As China reg­u­lates international adop­tion, at­ti­tudes at home make it diff icult for do­mes­tic adopters

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - - REBECCA LONG OKURA AND HATTY LIU

On a cold morn­ing in Novem­ber 2017, 18-mon­thold Zhang Li­wei was bun­dled into a car with two guardians, some cook­ies, a bot­tle, and a small toy. Ar­riv­ing at a con­crete build­ing in He­fei, An­hui prov­ince, or­phan­age work­ers pointed Li­wei at Sarah, a child­less Amer­i­can woman with blonde high­lights and glasses, and told him: “Mama.”

“It is such a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence. We were brought to­gether by pro­cesses and cir­cum­stances that we never could have an­tic­i­pated,” Sarah re­calls of the adop­tion. “It was tremen­dously sad and also beau­ti­ful.” Found on a side­walk out­side a fur­ni­ture fac­tory at two weeks old, Li­wei had a re­cently fixed cleft lip, a hole in his palate, se­vere con­sti­pa­tion, and a patho­log­i­cal fear of water. Still, when Sarah left the room that day, she al­ready con­sid­ered Li­wei her son for­ever.

Sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, Li­wei was one of the lucky ones. In 2016, only around four per­cent of chil­dren in Chi­nese or­phan­ages and foster homes were adopted, ac­cord­ing to a pri­vate study by Beijing’s Zhiyan Con­sul­tants. From the 1990s to the mid-2000s, when China be­came the world’s big­gest “sender coun­try” for international adoptees, that per­cent­age hov­ered around 35


per­cent. How­ever, po­lit­i­cal pres­sure both in China and abroad has led to a grad­ual tight­en­ing of cross-border adop­tions, cul­mi­nat­ing in the State Coun­cil’s de­ci­sion in De­cem­ber 2017 to no longer re­quire do­na­tions from for­eign par­ents wish­ing to adopt from China.

To would-be adopters in China, though, it’s Sarah, not just Li­wei, who was lucky. For main­land fam­i­lies, adopt­ing a child through le­gal chan­nels is a mon­u­men­tal task.

Ac­cord­ing to Shaanxi fam­ily lawyer Fang Yan, who pro­posed to amend the PRC’S Adop­tion Law at the 13th Na­tional Peo­ple’s Con­gress (NPC) in 2018, reg­u­la­tions are the ma­jor rea­son be­hind China’s low do­mes­tic adop­tion rates. “The laws have not kept up with our so­ci­ety’s needs,” she tells TWOC. “The thresh­old for Chi­nese par­ents to qual­ify is ex­tremely high.”

The PRC’S Adop­tion Law, formalized in 1991, has been amended just once in the last 27 years—in 1998, when the min­i­mum age re­quire­ment for par­ents was low­ered from 35 to 30. Prospec­tive adopters and adoptees both still face a rash of le­gal bar­ri­ers to be­com­ing a fam­ily. In or­der to be el­i­gi­ble, chil­dren must be un­der 14. They must be or­phans who have lost both par­ents and have no other le­gal guardian; aban­doned chil­dren whose par­ents can­not be traced; or chil­dren whose par­ents are un­able to care for them, in most cases due to fi­nan­cial hard­ship or phys­i­cal ill­ness. Chil­dren res­cued from traf­fick­ing, whose par­ents can­not be lo­cated, are one group that’s not el­i­gi­ble for adop­tion. They and oth­ers are raised in staterun or­phan­ages un­der the Min­istry of Civil Af­fairs, known as “chil­dren’s wel­fare cen­ters” (儿童福利院), or by qual­i­fied fam­i­lies in “foster care” (家庭寄养). Pri­vate or­phan­ages run by NGOS also ex­ist.

The law is also adamant that adop­tive par­ents must be child­less, and can adopt only one child at max­i­mum—a relic of the de­funct one-child pol­icy. Even bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents in the coun­try­side, who could some­times have an­other child if their first was a girl, have more lee­way, though sev­eral lo­cal gov­ern­ments have started of­fer­ing the same ex­emp­tion to adop­tive par­ents in 2009. “I didn’t re­al­ize they’d rather let me give birth [to a sec­ond child] than adopt one,” a Ms. Hu, an un­suc­cess­ful adop­tive mother from Chang­sha, sar­cas­ti­cally told the Peo­ple’s Daily dur­ing the NPC meet­ing in 2015, when an­other del­e­gate had tried to amend the law.

Bar­ri­ers to le­gal adop­tion have been


partly re­spon­si­ble for the high rates of child traf­fick­ing in China, as well as “gray” adop­tions by rel­a­tives and neigh­bors—which are not tracked by of­fi­cial num­bers, as they of­ten in­volve un­reg­is­tered chil­dren born in vi­o­la­tion of fam­ily plan­ning poli­cies. There’s no of­fi­cial record, ei­ther, on the pro­por­tion of ab­ducted chil­dren in or­phan­ages and foster care, or chil­dren whose par­ents were tricked or co­erced into giv­ing them up, but such scan­dals have fre­quently bro­ken out in China: In one in­fa­mous case in 2005, state-run or­phan­ages in Hu­nan prov­ince was found to have bought at least 800 chil­dren from traf­fick­ers; an­other child-buy­ing case in­volved an or­phan­age in Jiangxi in 2013, al­most a decade later.

In 2017, the State Coun­cil be­gan re­forms to tackle such abuses in the adop­tion sys­tem. Do­na­tions to or­phan­ages from international adopters were made vol­un­tary, and had to take place af­ter the adop­tion is fi­nal­ized, due to con­cerns that they en­cour­aged traf­fick­ing, co­er­cion, fraud, and bribery. Ac­cord­ing to Love With­out Bound­aries, an NGO, or­phan­ages had re­ceived “do­na­tions” of up to 50,000 RMB for a healthy child, lead­ing to a be­lief, wide­spread on China’s on­line adop­tion fo­rums, that Chi­nese adopters were get­ting “out­bid” by for­eign­ers with deep pock­ets—though both for­eign and state me­dia have re­futed this, point­ing out that Chi­nese so­ci­ety, col­lec­tively, is far from al­tru­is­tic in choos­ing the chil­dren they adopt.

In the af­ter­math of the 2008 Sichuan Earth­quake, for ex­am­ple, a China Youth Daily edi­to­rial lam­basted the “self­ish” cit­i­zens who flooded hot­lines with of­fers to adopt earth­quake or­phans, but balked at giv­ing a home to dis­abled chil­dren at lo­cal wel­fare cen­ters. Though the govern­ment re­leases no of­fi­cial num­bers on the lat­ter, a 2013 Ten­cent News re­port cited Zhang Shifeng, president of the NGO China Cen­ter for Chil­dren’s Wel­fare and Adop­tion, es­ti­mat­ing that 90 per­cent of chil­dren in state or­phan­ages suf­fer some dis­abil­ity; Canada’s Globe and Mail has re­ported that dis­abled chil­dren make up as much as 98 per­cent of all China’s aban­doned chil­dren. In 2014, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Shang­hai Civil Af­fairs Bureau told the Global Times that the city had a wait­ing list of 1,000 fam­i­lies to adopt a healthy child—but, since the new re­forms, healthy chil­dren can no longer be adopted across China’s bor­ders.

For Les­lie Wang, pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity Mas­sachusetts-bos­ton, the govern­ment’s re­forms sig­nal chang­ing pri­or­i­ties for the PRC on the world stage. For­merly, “send­ing chil­dren abroad to join West­ern fam­i­lies has served as a form of ‘soft power’ [for the PRC]. Chi­nese of­fi­cials have been able to en­hance the na­tion’s image abroad, while also fund­ing the lo­cal child-wel­fare sys­tem,” she claims in her 2006 book, Out­sourced Chil­dren. “The new rules not only aim to reg­u­late and re­strict international


adop­tion, but also en­cour­age do­mes­tic place­ments.” Wang writes that ru­ral fam­i­lies have tra­di­tion­ally de­sired males and able-bod­ied chil­dren to work and sup­port par­ents in old age, though girls also have been val­ued for emo­tional sup­port.

Fang sees this pref­er­ence for healthy chil­dren as mainly cul­tural. “While for­eign fam­i­lies may think all chil­dren are an­gels…it’s a prob­lem on the con­cep­tual level with China,” she al­leges. Pub­lic feel­ing is more com­pli­cated: In 2008, re­but­tals to China Youth Daily’s edi­to­rial pointed out the many prac­ti­cal rea­sons why Chi­nese par­ents are re­luc­tant to adopt dis­abled chil­dren, in­clud­ing the cost of health in­surance and po­ten­tial life­long med­i­cal care, a lack of wheel­chair and dis­abled ac­cess in China’s pub­lic spa­ces, pos­si­ble dis­crim­i­na­tion at school and in the work­place, and the like­li­hood that the child could not pro­vide for par­ents in their old age.

In 2015, the char­ity Fu­ture Smile es­ti­mated that surgery for a cleft lip and palate cost ap­prox­i­mately 17,000 RMB, while the av­er­age Chi­nese fam­ily’s an­nual in­come was 21,587 Rmb—yet in Wang’s book, an or­phan­age worker al­leges that Chi­nese par­ents do not want to adopt chil­dren with cleft lips even if the surgery is free, due to the scar it leaves.

Th­ese prob­lems are com­plex, but Fang’s amend­ments, which were regis­tered at the March meet­ing of the 13th NPC, could cre­ate ba­sic changes: namely, rais­ing the max­i­mum age of adop­tion to 18, bringing the Adop­tion Law in line with what’s now the twochild pol­icy, and mak­ing chil­dren in abu­sive homes el­i­gi­ble to be adopted. Re­gard­ing adop­tive par­ents, she pro­poses to lower the min­i­mum age re­quire­ment to 25, and en­ter par­ents into a track­ing sys­tem for the child’s wel­fare af­ter the adop­tion. In th­ese pro­pos­als, she is find­ing un­likely al­lies among international ac­tivists—many of them adoptees them­selves.

Grace New­ton, like Li­wei, was adopted from China by Amer­i­can par­ents more than 20 years ago. Through her blog “Red Thread Bro­ken,” she ad­vo­cates rais­ing chil­dren in their birth coun­try and com­mu­nity—and sup­port­ing changes to do­mes­tic poli­cies, re­sources, and so­cial con­di­tions to make that pos­si­ble. New­ton tells TWOC she sup­ports “a hi­er­ar­chy of place­ment for chil­dren who can­not be with their birth par­ents: Kin­ship place­ment, then do­mes­tic adop­tion, then international adop­tion only as a last re­sort… whether a child is in an or­phan­age or is then adopted, some very dev­as­tat­ing change has oc­curred in the child’s life.

“Adop­tions are not des­tined to hap­pen. They are the re­sults of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sys­tems of op­pres­sion,” New­ton writes in the in­tro­duc­tion to her site. “I can ac­knowl­edge, as an adopted child, that I had op­por­tu­ni­ties,” she tells TWOC, “but at what cost?”


Some names have been changed to pro­tect the iden­tity of in­ter­vie­wees

A fam­ily with sons adopted from China at­tend a LanternFes­ti­val cel­e­bra­tion at the Mon­treal Chi­nese Con­sulate

Each sum­mer, govern­ment-run “her­itage” camps are held in China for over­seas adoptees and their fam­i­lies

Liang Jing, a miss­ing child who was adopted by an Amer­i­can fam­ily, was re­united with her par­ents 13 years later in 2018

An over­whelm­ing per­cent­age of chil­dren in China’s or­phan­ages are dis­abled, due to so­cial and cul­tural fac­tors that fa­vor healthy chil­dren

A care­taker feeds an or­phan at a Lanzhou wel­fare cen­ter; her other du­ties in­clude bathing and dress­ing the chil­dren

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