Each year, thousands of children are adopted from the People's Republic of China with the numbers growing steadily. Last year, over 7,000 children born in China joined families in the U.S. through adoption. These children (predominantly girls) represent just the tip of the iceberg of a profound social phenomenon in China - the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of babies each year and the resulting development of an overburdened orphanage system to care for and raise them. This trend is the result of many complex societal forces in China, as the country struggles to limit its population growth.
The “One-child” Policy In the 1950s, China's leader, Mao Tse-Tung, urged his people to have more children to strengthen the country. The resulting growth of the population eventually led to great concern in the 1970s that China would be unable to feed its staggering population, since over 3/4 of the population lived on 1/3 of the land available for cultivation. Furthermore, China was historically prone to floods and famine compounding the problem. In 1979, when the Chinese represented 25% of the world's population, the government in China implemented a one-child policy to be overseen by the State Family Planning Commission. The intent was to limit families to having one child, in the hopes of keeping China's population under 1.3 billion by the year 2000. The baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s were entering their reproductive years, and 2/3 of the population of China were under the age of 30. These factors made strict population containment appear essential to economic reform and improvement in the living standards. By the end of the year 2000, China's population was 1.26 billion or 21% of the world’s population but was expected to grow to 1.6 billion by 2050. With the attainment of the primary goal, reduced population growth, the one-child policy is generally still in effect today.
Contrary to first impression, the one-child rule applies to a minority of the population; for urban residents and government employees, the policy is strictly enforced, with a few exceptions in some areas for families in which the first child has a disability or both parents work in high-risk occupations or are themselves from one-child families. In rural areas which encompass approximately 70% of China's population, a second child is generally allowed five years after the first. However, application of this provision varies from province to province.
The policy is underpinned by a system of rewards and penalties, which are largely meted out at the discretion of local officials and vary widely as a result. The system includes economic incentives for compliance and substantial fines, confiscation of belongings, and dismissal from work for noncompliance. Cities traditionally have been stricter in enforcing the policy, although Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province in recent years have allowed families to have two children to counteract declines in population growth. Despite the severe penalties, many couples still get around the law by sending the pregnant woman to stay with relatives until the baby is born or claiming the newborn baby was adopted or belongs to a friend or relative.
The Impact on FemalesIncreased enforcement of the one-child policy, particularly beginning in the late 1980s, has had a huge impact on Chinese families and the nation overall, because of the preference for sons in Chinese society particularly in rural areas. There are many reasons why families prefer to have sons:
- Longstanding societal preferences in for sons over daughters.
- In rural areas, sons are believed to perform a heavier workload than girls.
- Sons carry on a family's ancestral name, while females do not.
- Inheritance laws pass property through males rarely females and
- The fact that a son is responsible to care for his parents in their old age, which is important in China because the country does not have an established government-backed
social security program. Also, traditionally and until recently, wives have shared in the responsibility for caring for their husbands' parents before even their own.
As a result, China reports a higher ratio of male births to female births than anywhere in the world. This is believed to be because many female births are unaccounted for due to a variety of reasons. The effect of this situation is clearly evidenced in the school systems of many areas of China , where male students are predominant.
Infant Abandonment In the past two decades, a significant number of Chinese parents have reacted to various pressures of the one-child policy by abandoning female infants. This practice, while not condoned by the Chinese government, is widespread. Infant abandonment in China takes a variety of forms. In some areas, a childless couple may find an abandoned child on their doorstep. These "informal" adoptions circumvent the many bureaucracies imposed on Chinese couples facing domestic adoption. More frequently, infants are abandoned in public places where they will be found quickly, such as busy streets, parks, railway stations or in front of public buildings. Most abandonments occur within the first two months of life, and usually within the first few days. While this practice may seem shocking in some cultures, the circumstances and decisions faced by parents of these children are extremely complex and difficult.
These abandoned children are generally taken to welfare institutions where they are cared for on minimal resources. Only some of these institutions participate in international adoption programs. Adoptions of Chinese Children Before 1990, China permitted very few international adoptions. For example, adoptions of Chinese orphans by citizens ranged from a low of 10 to a high of 62 in the years between 1986 and 1991. In early 1994, China relaxed its international adoption policies in response to various factors prevalent at that time. Currently, the adoption process is administered by the China Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA). The program requires that parents, either married or single, be at least 30 but under 45 years old to qualify for a healthy child under the age of 12 months. Older children and children with special needs are available to a wider spectrum of adoptive parents. Potential adoptive parents generally work through an agency that has demonstrated a commitment to child welfare, knowledge of international adoption, appropriate licensing and a professional staff.