Monday, October 5, 2009

International adoptions fuel "family planning" kidnappings

by Laura Smith-Gary

In late September, Chinese families told reporters from the Los Angeles Times that their babies have been stolen from them by "family planning" officials and given -- or perhaps more correctly, "laundered" -- to American adoptive couples. According to these families, the officials wield China's family planning policies as weapons, financially coercing and physically forcing Chinese parents to give up their children. The infants are then labeled “abandoned” and put up for international adoption, and the officials collect a substantial cut of the $3,000 in fees adoptive parents pay. These stories are supported by an investigation by the state-owned Southern Metropolis News, which found that at least 80 baby girls from the Guizhou province had been seized from their parents when the families couldn't pay exorbitant fines for having more than two children. The girls were given in transnational adoptions to American and European parents. The adoption fees, the News reported, were split between orphanages and local officials.

The demand for Chinese babies by American and other Western parents is fueling these outrageous kidnappings.* Many of those consulted by the Times point out that were foreign citizens not ready and willing to pay high fees for healthy Chinese babies -- and happy to accept that the infant they want to take home has been abandoned by its (usually her) parents -- it is inconceivable that family planning officials would go beyond their legal authority and confiscate children to be raised at the expense of the state. One of the cruel ironies of the situation is that the demand by Americans to adopt Chinese babies, especially Chinese girls, comes largely from the idea that Chinese girls are regularly abandoned by their parents and face a grim future if they are not adopted by foreign families. As one adoptive mother explained, "When we adopted in 2006, we were fed the same stories, that there were millions of unwanted girls in China, that they would be left on the street to die if we didn't help."

These stories are not without a basis in reality. In many parts of China, daughters are less valued than sons. Sons provide an economic safety net for their parents, give them honor and social standing, and customarily care for the souls of their ancestors. Daughters give no such benefits, and can be seen as a burden rather than an asset. Chinese limits on childbearing can also mean having a girl prevents the birth of a son -- in some provinces this is considered so serious that a couple who have a daughter as their first child are permitted to have a second in the hope of getting a boy. At times, Chinese families’ preference for sons leads to sex-selective abortion; in the most extreme cases a family desperate for a son may abandon a female infant who would fill their legally allowed number of children.

This situation is a bitter example of the tangle of problems Americans and other Westerners can inadvertently generate when attempting to change structural and cultural sexism in other societies, even in small ways. Adopting an unwanted female infant seems to be a private, personal way to affect a small amount of change, and there is little doubt that in many cases truly abandoned and subsequently transnationally adopted girls benefit greatly from the love, comfort, and opportunities their lives with their adopted family afford them. Understanding the full ramifications of Western interference, however, is tricky and must take into account the cultural structures and institutions playing a role in the layers of sexism in a country. China's family planning laws are an example of an institution that is fundamentally about controlling women's reproduction, and taken in the context of son-preferencing Chinese culture, they provides pressure that lead to some girls being aborted, neglected, and abandoned. It seems to be a fundamentally sexist law, and it also seems that mitigating its effects -- for instance, by adopting one of the unwanted female infants -- would be a purely good act.

While attempting to work against institutionalized sexism, though, we must be aware that we may be feeding into other systems of oppression, like structural racism, poverty, and the exploitation of developing countries by developed countries. China's family planning laws and adoption laws exist in a number of systems besides that of gender, and must also be considered both in the context of rural poverty and disenfranchisement within China and in the context of wealth flowing between Western individuals and Chinese institutions. Family planning laws in China not only limit the legal number of children a family can have and allow forced abortions, sterilizations, and insertion of IUDs, they allow officials to levy steep fines to families found to be in violation of the restrictions on family size. This gives officials economic power as well as power over reproduction. The lack of legal redress available to those in rural villages also means that officials can exceed their legal authority and confiscate children without much fear of discipline. As one Chinese scholar told the LA Times, family planning officials are more powerful, and more feared, than the Ministry of Public Security.

The insertion of Western wealth into such a situation, even if done with the purest of intentions, has resulted in rampant corruption -- and now, kidnappings. Transnational adoption has fostered a system in which poor, powerless families from non-white, "third world" nations are exploited to meet the desires of white Americans -- even if that desire is to “rescue” a baby girl. Children become a commodity and an export, marketed to relatively wealthy Americans as exotic accessories, as demure and delicate "China dolls", or (and) as discarded infants in need of rescue from an oppressive patriarchal regime.** The discrimination girls face in China is extremely real, and it has also become part of the marketing for the adoption of Chinese infants. Upon reading this article I was ashamed to realize how I'd been thinking of Chinese parents who loved and valued daughters as the exception rather than the rule -- an absurd supposition stemming from my own racism and "othering" of Chinese families.

It is evident from the LA Times article that the interviewed adoptive parents love their children, also that they feel their lifestyle and the fact that they are "rescuers" entitles them to the children. One mother says she worries her daughter was stolen, and that though she would never consider returning her even if that was the case, she would “maybe send a picture.” While I can’t imagine having to contemplate the idea that your beloved child was kidnapped and functionally sold to you, but this struck me as a continuation of the racism-tinged idea that Chinese parents don’t really care about their daughters as American parents do -- the girl’s adoptive mother doesn’t seem to contemplate the fact that if their daughter was taken from them by force, six years later her birth parents are probably still in agony. The narrative (again, the not-unsubstantiated narrative) that some Chinese families consider girls dispensable is believed even if there is evidence that in this particular case it is not true. The idea that these girls are better off in America no matter how they got here lingers unpleasantly in the background. Indeed, they would probably have fewer opportunities as women growing up in China than they will growing up in America, and the fact that such a disparity of opportunity for female children exists is not something to be dismissed lightly. However, we should be extremely wary of using structural sexism in another country to justify any of our own racist beliefs about that culture (ie "Chinese people are barbaric, they leave their daughters on the streets to die"), and should be extraordinarily cautious about allowing our understanding of sexism in some culture to justify our exploitation of that country's people. In our naivete and willful ignorance, it seems we have been doing just that, feeding into a system that hurts girls and hurts families.

While I've moved this into the abstract a bit, I don't want to again make the mistake of forgetting that there are real families in pain, all individuals and none of them experiencing the loss of their child in exactly the same way. Concluding their article, the LA Times quotes a woman whose daughter was kidnapped by a "family planning" official and (the mother was told) adopted by Americans. The mother says that given the opportunity she wouldn’t try to force her daughter to come back to China, since the Americanized girl wouldn't want to live in a "poor village." Then she says, "But we'd like to know where she is. We'd like to see a picture. And we'd like her to know that we miss her and that we didn't throw her away."

*A few months ago I discussed a New York Times article reporting that family planning laws combined with some Chinese families’ desperation for sons had also led to a spate of young boys being kidnapped from urban areas and sold in rural provinces. There is more than one kind of trafficking of children happening in China, domestically and internationally, and though they have elements in common that should be noted, they are all subject to different sorts of pressures and motivations.

**This isn't only true of Chinese transnational adoptions -- it has been known for years, for instance, that Guatemalan children have been kidnapped to launder to American couples in adoption.

Hat tip, Resist Racism.

A few more resources: For more on transnational and transracial adoption, Racialicious has a good discussion going on here, which touches on the commodification of children and the narrative of abandoned Chinese girls covering dubious adoption practices -- I highly recommend reading the article and the comments, and following the links they give.

David M. Smolin's extremely informative paper for the 2005 Wayne Law Review titled "Child Laundering: How the Intercountry Adoption System Legitimizes and Incentivizes the Practices of Buying, Trafficking, Kidnapping, and Stealing Children" is definitely worth reading; it doesn't deal specifically with China but delves into the roots of corruption and exploitation in transnational adoption systems.

In 2002’s Law and Society Review, Kay Johnson writes “Politics of international and domestic adoption in China,” a fascinating analysis of hows and whys of China’s thriving international adoption and stuttering domestic adoption businesses.


At October 5, 2009 at 7:50 PM , Anonymous Brenda said...

Wow very insightful post! The funny thing is that American people think that Chinese girls are being "abandoned". Isn't it that they are simply MISSING? The girls are just 1) not being brought to term or 2) being neglected when it comes to necessities and health care. So essentially, the girls that are affected by sexism are not the ones being adopted!

Also, I like how you highlight how the fact that American culture has created a "demand" for female Chinese babies has changed the landscape of adoption.

At October 6, 2009 at 11:14 AM , Blogger TommyD said...

This is an issue that is quite familiar to me, as I have an adopted Ethiopian sister, and my mom works for AAI (, an agency that facilitates adoptions from China, several African countries, and domestically.

Cases of fraudulent, coerced or corrupted adoptions--such as the horror stories you highlighted--are undeniably real, and agencies like AAI have to work hard to ensure that the process is transparent, and that only children who have truly been orphaned or abandoned are placed into homes.

I dare say, though, that cases of fraud and "child laundering" are the exception, not the rule, in international adoptions. You pointed out that stories of unwanted, abandoned Chinese girls are "not without basis in reality." Indeed. Also based in reality is the fact that over 12 million children across the African continent have been orphaned by AIDS, a pandemic that has destroyed the traditional family networks that would have cared for these children.

Westerners' wealth and power gives us the ability to care for children who would not otherwise be cared for. This is not to say that we may kidnap babies from the Third World who already have parents, or assume that they'd be better off with us. But nor does it mean we should let anti-Western hand-wringing prevent us from doing good, or even begin to equate international adoptions with slave-trafficking (as Rebecca Walker seems to).

The worst consequence of "child laundering" would be if a backlash against international adoptions prevented truly orphaned and abandoned children from ever finding a home.

At October 7, 2009 at 2:35 AM , Anonymous Derek Gideon said...

My brother, whom I love deeply, is not an "exotic acessory."

At October 8, 2009 at 8:56 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

I'm glad you made that point about not judging other cultures. As a White Woman I am uncomfortable with judging other countries, whatever their state of gender relations, to be sexist. After all, their cultures are oppressed on a global scale, just as women are the world over.

At October 11, 2009 at 12:37 AM , Anonymous Ibn Zayd said...

TommyD here states the logically fallacious case that an exception (fraud in adoption) does not negate the general case (adoption is beneficial). It is obvious that he comes from a position from within the industry, which of course would be loathe to question its practices, or the effects that its trafficking of children has on lives other than those of the adoptive parents.

Speaking as an adoptee who has moved back to his land of birth, and who would not wish what he has discovered in terms of the corruption of the Lebanese adoption industry on anyone, I would like simply to point out the following: Adoption is based in the leveraging of inequality by a dominant class in order to procure children for those who have none from those who ideally would keep their children except for circumstances that are a direct result of this class difference to begin with.

Adoption is a violence, based in inequality; it is candy-coated to make it seem about family and children, but it is an economic and political crime, a treating of symptoms and not of disease; it is a negation of families and an annihilation of communities that are not seen as having an intrinsic human value equal to that of those adopting, for reasons having to do with race, with class, and with a preconceived notion of what makes for a “valid” life in this world.

These wealthy Americans, were they truly desiring to effect change in China, might decide to be more activist and pay the exorbitant fines such that these children might stay with their families. That they don't points out the selfish nature of their act. Furthermore, it reveals the lopsided injustices within adoption itself. Thank you for your article which stands up to current mythologies concerning adoption within the dominant discourse.

At October 14, 2009 at 9:24 PM , Anonymous Mei-Ling said...

Ibn, you know I normally agree with you. You always make very good economical points on the political rather than personal. But I'd like to point out a "tiny" flaw in your argument.

"These wealthy Americans, were they truly desiring to effect change in China, might decide to be more activist and pay the exorbitant fines such that these children might stay with their families."

Keeping more than one child is illegal. Having a girl is frowned upon. Infanticide isn't really legal but isn't stopped, either - as long as the mother can produce a boy. Same goes for abortion. But if she doesn't want to abort, if she doesn't want to kill her own infant, then abandonment is the only act. And of course, abandonment is illegal, so she has to do it anonymously or the penalty could be anything from family bankruptcy and jail to death. So now we have a catch-22.

If adoptive parents did not pay the thousands of dollars to adopt, the children would still be abandoned. Poverty would still exist. The One-Child Policy would still exist. You cannot change cultural mindsets unless THEY see a reason to.


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