Tuesday, August 23, 2005
China's Missing Daughters
The following experience occurred while my wife, daughter and I travelled from Jiangxi Province to Xi'An following a research project in May 2004.
As we sat in the airport terminal waiting to board our plane to Xi'An, an older woman approached and asked me about my daughter Meigon. We had long ago grown used to the attention Meigon and I received, me for being a blond-haired Westerner, her for being a small three year-old Chinese girl rattling on incessantly in perfect English. This woman also had a young two year-old girl in tow.
I explained that my daughter was from Guangzhou, and that we had become a family in 2001. A few minutes pause, and the woman began to tell me her story.
She owned a shop in the airport, and her daughter was actually a "foundling". The grandmotherly woman had been walking home one evening and had chanced upon the six-day old baby along the side of the road. In an instant she decided to keep the baby herself, and quickly hid the baby under her clothes as she stole home.
This child remains a carefully guarded family secret. No one in her son's village (he is married with a child of his own) knows about the origins of the girl. She keeps a secret I believe is shared by hundreds of thousands of others throughout China.
My first experience with "foundlings" was when I returned to Meikina's orphanage a few years ago. In discussing the director's family with him, he revealed that his fourteen year-old daughter was actually a girl found by a close family friend. When this family migrated to New York when the girl was four, the family asked the director to be the her guardian, since she lacked the official paperwork required to migrate with the rest of the family. Ten years later he was still keeping watch over her.
As I have spoken with finders in the course of my research, almost without exception they have recounted how close they came to keeping the found girl themselves. One doctor-finder of twin girls had trouble convincing another witness not to take one of the girls home with her. It was only by appealing to this witness's sense of duty to let the twins grow up together that there were two girls found that day, and not one. I wonder how often that isn't the result.
I estimate that there are around 250,000 children found every year which end up in China's orphanages (almost 40,000 in orphanages that do international adoptions). This figure is based on the number of finding ads placed in the Provincial newspapers each year, reporting the date and location for each foundling. How many are silently taken from the scene and raised in the village or town where they were found is unknown of course, but my instinct tells me it is also in the hundreds of thousands.
As adoptive families we are told that a search is launched each time a child is found, and the finding ads placed in newspapers are one facet of that search for a child's family. But the reality is that no search is made. I have stumbled upon witnesses that had substantial information regarding birth parents, and no inquiry was ever made of these people. It soon becames apparent that from the hospital staff to the police to the orphanage personel, all are accessories
after the fact, turning a blind eye to this problem, allowing birth parents to go uncaught and unpunished. Outwardly the Family Planning office seeks to prevent pregnancy and births through indoctrination and propaganda, but once the birth occurs, little is done, and most turn their heads and ask few questions.
I agree with this strategy.
The woman in the airport was able to afford what most can't -- the after birth registration fee to obtain an identification card for her daughter. When a woman becomes pregnant, she is encouraged to register her pending child with the local Family Planning office. For no fee, she can obtain an I.D. card for her future child, allowing her to have access to the area hospital and to later register her child in school, etc. But many do not register their child until after the child is born. Obtaining an I.D. card after the child is born is costly, costing the airport woman 8,000 rmb ($1,000), a small fortune for many Chinese.
Thus, many thousands of China's daughters remain unregistered members of China's society, forming an invisible and growing group hidden in the countryside and in the cities. These girls will have trouble gaining an education and jobs unless fees and fines are reduced and the I.D. process made possible. Until then, demographic numbers will continue to show an "imbalance" among China's children. China officially does nothing to rectify this perceived imbalance, because it allows them to encourage families to keep their girls by reporting that China faces a girl shortage.
Everyone wins, except China's hidden daughters.