Saturday, December 31, 2005

"I Have No Money"

The shirt caught my eye as I walked along the market street of Dali's "Old Town" in the Western Province of Yunnan, China. "I Have No Money" it stated simply in Chinese. Boy, I thought, I should get that shirt to wear on my trips.

I did buy the shirt, as a joke and as a reminder. The simple truth is that everytime I come to China I experience events that break my heart, and reinforce to me again and again how most of the world lives. Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan doesn't apply well to the back streets of rural China. If one took the teachings of this parable literally, one would never be able to walk to the end of a single street. Need is everywhere here, and manifests itself in many forms: the four year-old street urchin; the teenager asking for education money; the crippled man barely able to push himself through the dirt and trash; the old woman with broken teeth asking for enough to give her another meal.

"I Have No Money"

The Chinese remind me that the shirt is meant as a joke, that the Chinese seek to impress those around them with their possessions, even if purchased with borrowed money. For the Chinese, the look of money is the goal. To be able to portray to the less fortunate that the Chinese gods have looked with favor upon them. The joke lies in the fact that few in China are willing to admit that they truly are poor and have no money.

"I Have No Money"

I wear the shirt feeling a burden of guilt. Although I am told that most will find the shirt funny, and show others that I have sense of humor, I realize that I also must hide my face in shame as I pass the poor beggar. For the truth is, I am richer than 95% of those whom I walk among in China. I carry my trinkets home from my daily shopping excursions, passing those who have nothing of what I have. My heart is torn between my selfish and carnal side, and my religious and moral upbringing that holds the conviction that those who assist others in need will be blessed.

I am reminded of a night I sat in a KFC in Nanking, in China's eastern Province of Jiangsu. A city steeped in history, I had come here to witness for myself the pictures and graves bearing witness to the atrocities the Chinese had experienced in World War II at the hands of the invading Japanese. Now, as I silently ate my fried chicken, a woman approached me through the glass and motioned that she was hungry.

I invited her to come into the facility to eat, but an employee forbade her entry. "She comes here often," was the look the employee gave me, "don't feed her." But in my mind I kept hearing the words of my youth, "I was an hungered, and you gave me food." I walked to the counter, ordered some food and drink, and walked it outside into her eager arms. She turned and walked into the darkness.

The Chinese largely ignore the myriad beggars they pass on the streets. "They do it for business," is their reasoning, a rational I am all too familiar with at home. But when I am approached by a young girl who looks like she could be my daughter, my hand slips once again into my pocket, hoping that I will find some small change to pass on. Even those who work make little money by Western standards. The director of my daughter's orphanage, a respected government position, makes $160 a month. Taxi drivers make about the same, and those that clean China's streets make less in a month than I spend to go to McDonalds with my girls. Most of China's farmers and the factory workers make less in a year than an American teenager makes at a part-time job in a month.

China's poor remind me that I live in a global society, not on an island of prosperity in the sea of destitution and poverty. U.S. calls to limit imports from China, India, and other impoverished nations fall on deaf ears with me. The threat of globalization, the loss of American jobs, the importing of cheap goods, is a two edged sword. Certainly there is a cost to be borne by those whose incomes exceed that of most in the world, but few of us in the U.S. realize the benefit those jobs are to those in other countries. The exporting of factory jobs to the "Sweat Shops" of China allow many women who previously worked at the back-breaking labor of the field to make more money in a factory job. In a small way their lives are improved -- slowly, almost imperceptively -- but improved none-the-less. I question any policy that elevates or maintains my standard of living by continuing to suppress that of others.

As I walk China's streets, I have long ago stopped trying to discern who is "doing it for business" and who is in true need. I give whatever change I have freely and willingly, with a silent prayer that others might do so also. What I do is small. If I was a better person I could do much more. But I hope that one day all might be able to live like I do, rich in the abundance of the earth's blessings, free of the deprivation of life's basic needs. Instead of living on an island of prosperity, I hope that one day the economic continents will unite and we will all live in abundance together.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

"Rolling Cloud of Black Smoke" -- 12/26/04

On December 26, 2004 a set of twin tsunamis wreaked devastation on both shores of the Indian Ocean. A few days later, my wife Lan, a friend Adam and I brought care and hygene packages to many of the thousands of homeless children in Sri Lanka's relief centers. As we made our way from camp to camp, we stopped to watch the recover effort taking place in a grove of trees along the coast.

The sand crunched under my feet as I made my way to the recovery site. Overhead, I spied ripe coconuts hanging in the trees. As I wound my way through the trees, I had to watch my step to avoid walking on clothes, purses, and other personal effects. In the distance the sound of a diesel engine was heard, the heavy-lifter that was even now, nearly two weeks later, still working to right the compartments.

This site, located just outside Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka's western coast, has become for the Sri Lankan's symbolic of the entire tsunami disaster. At 9:55 am on December 26 over 1,500 people lost their lives on this site. Most were passengers in the #50 Train, making the post-holiday return home from Colombo to Matara over two hundred kilometers to the south.

The #50 started the morning at 7:30 am with its departure from Colombo's train station. On board were nearly 900 passengers, mostly families, returning from visiting family and friends for Christmas. As the train paused in Moratuwa, Pandura, Kalutura and other small towns, a few more passengers boarded, until the number peaked at around 1,000 passengers as it pulled out of Kahawu, ninety kilometers south of Colombo, at 9:25 am. The passengers were tightly seated in the train's eight burgundy rail cars, all of which was being pulled by the single light-blue diesel engine.

The train's track meandered through the coconut forests parallel to the Sri Lankan coastline. For most of the trip, the passengers could look out the right-side windows and see the emerald water. Even at this early time of the morning the air was warm and humid, and almost without exception each passenger lifted their window open to allow the fresh ocean air into the train compartments.

As the train neared the two kilometer mark from Kahawu, the passengers watching the ocean to the west glimpsed the first sign of trouble. Looking through trees, coming at them with tremendous speed was what one person would later described as a "rolling cloud of black smoke". It was in fact the first wave of the tsunami. Filled with sand and debris, the wave took on the appearance of a living, moving wall of water. Just before the it hit the train the passengers felt the cool spray of the approaching destruction.

As the wave engulfed the train, it drowned the train's engine, stopping the train in a small clearing about 500 yards from the coast. The water settled around the passengers' knees, indicating it was about 8 feet deep. When the local farm people saw that the train had remained mostly erect, they began swimming towards it. As they reached the sides, the passenger's yelled down to them to lift their children up through the open windows. Over the next half hour, nearly 500 local inhabitants would join the train's passengers in what was thought to be a safe location to wait out the receding waters.

One passenger, Supun Jayansinghe, left the train. Supun was on his way to a holiday party being hosted by some friends in Hikkaduma, the next stop on the rail-line. Not trusting the circumstances that he was witnessing, Supun made his way to a nearby coconut tree, and worked his way up to the tree's top branches. At its peak, the tree was nearly 50 feet high.

Below him the passengers were screaming and crying. No one understood what was happening. The weather was clear, and there was no apparent reason why a wave should have come into land this far. As time passed and nothing further happened, the passengers began to calm down. Many had made their way to the roof of the train, and were sitting there gazing out at the water below them. The farm houses appeared to still be fine, and many locals had taken refuge on the roofs of these buildings as well. All could see that the water was receding. Most felt things were going to work out, and they would soon be on their way again.

Twenty-five minutes after the first wave had hit, Supun and the others heard a building roar once more coming from the ocean. Still more local farmers and their children appeared in the clearing, screaming in terror at the approach of the gigantic second wave. All would have seen the tumultuous thirty-foot wave as it made its way over the highway, engulfing the trees and buildings, hurdling in their direction. As tall as most of the coconut trees, the wall of water would have looked enormous from the ground and the train. As the wave hit the farm houses, it lifted the roofs and collapsed the walls, blowing the stranded people into the foamy water. In what was no longer than a few seconds, most of the train's passengers realized they were about to die.

The force of the water broadsiding the train forced it off its tracks and flung the cars sideways into the sand. Most fell on their sides, throwing those on the roof into the dark water, and allowing the sand and foam to pour into the train's compartments. Within seconds the cabins were full, and although many tried to make their way out of the open windows, the foamy water disallowed many from escaping. Within a matter of a few minutes, Supun, his eyes closed to the bedlam and screams of those below him, looked down upon a quiet, almost tranquil scene. Bodies and debris floated around him, the train invisible underneath the more than 20 feel of water.

Days later, the rescue teams would find nearly 500 bodies in the area immediately surrounding the train, and more than 900 inside the train itself. It would take nearly a week to recover and bury the victims.

As I walked to the recovery area 10 days later, the bodies were gone but their screams still filled the air. Most of the passenger cars had been restored to a short stretch of track. Clothing, purses, and other belongings hung from the open windows. The cars stood damaged but not destroyed. Rescue workers, most wearing light blue surgical masks, continued to labor to clean up the mess.

As I have witnessed the scenes of utter desolation in the wake of the two tsunami waves that washed over the coast of Sri Lanka, I have felt largely detached from the human suffering that must have taken place here. In a measure of emotional self-preservation, you always imagine that this family must have survived, or that these people got out of the way before the second killer wave struck. But in walking around the wreckage of Train #50, you know that almost 1,500 people perished inside the cabins you are seeing. You can easily imagine what they saw, what they experienced in the last few seconds of their lives. It is at once harrowing and impressive.

Even now, two weeks after the event, and before the last cleanup efforts have been completed, the tourists and onlookers are appearing. The site feels like sacred ground, and one is compelled to whisper. More than any other, this place will grow to represent the suffering and pain of the Sri Lankan people. For me, it brings home the power of nature, and the enormity of the event that transpired here.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

P.S. My Final Word on Hunan

Since posting my letter to the CCAA, I have been praised and pelted (mostly anonymously) for doing so. Many claim my arrogance at even approaching the CCAA, and many spoke from fear that the CCAA would be so offended that they would stop adopting to foreigners.

It is the unfortunate reality that my work in researching has deep concerns at the CCAA. I am not sure what exactly they are afraid of, but it seems we are locked in a power struggle to control the information that is received by adoptive families. I have had many experiences with directors that wished they could convey to their families information regarding birth parents, notes, pictures, etc., but were strictly prevented from doing so.

Due to my desire to protect directors and others who cooperate in providing information to families, I have become hypersensitive to being obscure and vague when making reference to conversations. "Certain meetings" are left chronologically undefined, because I am afraid the CCAA can determine who was at the meetings, and track down my sources. So, I am always required to change names, places, cities, etc. to mask the originator of my information.

The Hunan baby trafficking story has been building for years. If it wasn't for the very brave orphanage worker (and few of us can comprehend how brave this person was) that exposed the trafficking ring to the Shanghai newspaper, it would, without a doubt, have never been revealed, and all of us would have continued assuming that ALL of our kids were orphans. But the reality is that the CCAA was probably aware of this ring for several years. In early 2004 all of the orphanages in Western Guangdong Province had their records audited at the request of the CCAA. At the time, it was asserted that the reason for the audit was that there was apparently no slow-down in foundlings in Western Guangdong that had been experienced in most other areas of China, and there was concern "that the orphanages were engaged in baby-trafficking." At the time I learned of this I assumed that this was just a curiosity investigation, and found it affirming that most of the orphanages passed muster. The one orphanage that did not, Huazhou, apparently kept faulty or incomplete records.

Now, I have asked several Guangdong directors if, in light of recent discoveries in Hunan, the director in Huazhou was involved in baby trafficking. No one knows for sure. I personally find the whole timing of these events to be very suspicious. I don't know if Huazhou was involved, but press reports indicate orphanages in Guangdong were involved, and that this has been going on for many years.

Some have faulted me for releasing information concerning the closure of Hunan “based on rumor”. In this I have to respectfully disagree. I received valid, reliable information (information which is now being shown to have been accurate) concerning the change in status for Hunan from a director of one the orphanages. As others have posted, this closure was also communicated in the CCAA’s internal memos to most of the orphanages in the area. I stand by the accuracy of my reporting.

So, to those of you that feel I should have remained quiet, and not antagonize the CCAA, and "let them do their investigations," I would respond that the CCAA WAS investigating, and quietly cleaning up the mess. In all likelihood, if the Shanghai paper had not broken this news, we would never have heard anything about it. The financial realities of the international baby market that I have written about would have continued, and perhaps in another city another director might have made a similar deal with the devil.

But fortunately, the press did hear about this story. Now the world is watching, exerting pressure on China to make changes. Not to just fire those involved, but to arrest them. "Face-saving," is no longer an option in much of this. I believe it falls on us, as adoptive parents, to put aside our own self-interests and put as much heat as possible on the CCAA to insure that this never happens again. Never!!!!!

Was my letter arrogant? I don't think so. It was an attempt to show that this story is not simply an "China" story, one that can be censored and made to go away. This is a story that potentially effects your child and mine. It is my hope that it will spur them to really clean house, and make changes that will insure that the children we adopt from China, not just today but also next year, are truly who we think they are.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

An Open Letter to the CCAA

To the Honorable People at the CCAA:

We have been, shall I say, on adversarial terms for many years now. Iam sorry for that, because in many ways the mission of the CCAA and mine are very similar -- to find loving homes for China's daughters and sons, and to empower them with knowledge to lead happy lives.

I can't presume to speak for the entire adoption community, but I do feel that I have a very good connection with the concerns of many, since I am the father of several Chinese daughters myself. So it is in that spirit that I post this open letter to you, the CCAA, knowing that you do read my writings, and in the hope that we can create an honest and forthcoming dialogue.

The Chinese culture has a long and splendid history. I am proud of the great strides China has made in the last decade to bring an openness and transparency to its people. As I read Chinese papers and watch Chinese television, I am often amazed at the stories I see reported, many of which I know would have been kept hidden just a few years ago.

That is why recent events in Hunan regarding baby trafficking have grown so disturbing for myself and the thousands of other families whose children were adopted from China. It is my firm conviction that the events that transpired in Hunan are isolated, that there is not wide-spread corruption in the orphanages, and that the overwhelming majority (if not all) of our adopted daughters came to us as we were told at adoption: being found as an orphan.

So, I can only assume that China is working from a position of determination to make sure events that occurred in Hunan are not common place, and are resolved quickly. I can only assume that there is no desire to cover-up what has been discovered to be wide-spread kidnapping and selling of China's daughters. As adoptive families, we trust that this is the case.

Thus, we can view the just-announced closing of Hunan Province to further adoptions as a precautionary measure designed to show that the CCAA and the government are on top of things, and are acting to return the adoption program to complete integrity and legitimacy. Realistically, we also recognize that it was a defensive move to avoid the possible closure of China to international adoptions by the United States and other countries under the Hague agreement. By closing Hunan, China seems to be communicating that this was a localized event.

But the parallel announcement that the Chinese press is no longer able to report on this story casts all of these actions in a troubling light. The Free Press isa fundamental right in the cultures of most of your adopting families, and our natural response to censureship of the press is that there is something to hide. But a free and uncontrolled press is the friend and supporter of honest government. It is only a corrupt government (which we believe the Chinese government is not) that fears the disclosures made by a free press.

I, therefore, offer the following suggestions in an attitude of humility and a sincere desire to assist China in resolving this issue. I love China heart and soul, and wish nothing but prosperity and goodwill for China from my country and all peoples in the world.

1) Most families watch your CCAA website carefully. You might consider posting information regarding your investigations and findings, letting adoptive families know what is being discovered. We all understand that there are individuals in every country that make bad decisions, and do bad things. China has no need to fear that reporting the actions of a few people will cause us to think that all of China acts or believes in this way. By keeping adoptive families informed, you will quiet a lot of the fear and uncertainty -- uncertainty that is, in all honesty, increasing among the adoptive families. This story has caused many to reconsider adopting from China; it has created bad feelings among many that have already adopted. It is in your control to dispel the causes of this bad will.

2) Allow the press in China to cover this story. Covering it up and protecting those that illegally kidnapped children for adoption is immoral, and against the basic philosophical principles on which China is built. As I stated above, everyone understands that a few individuals will act contrary to the public good, and these people should be detected, arrested, and punished for their actions. I believe this is what the CCAA wants. It is certainly what the adoptive families want. We adopted from China to assist orphaned children to find good homes. For us it is anathema to consider that our daughters were stolen to provide us with children, all in the name of money. By allowing the Chinese press to investigate and expose those responsible for these actions, we will have increased confidence that the CCAA is on our side. By preventing the press from reporting on this story, you simply make us believe that the problem is bigger than at first reported, and increases our uncertainty.

I welcome a dialogue with you on this or any other topic. I sincerely believe that the CCAA and I can assist each other in bringing happiness to China's adopted children around th e world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

P.S. Birth Mother Addendum

Many have written me thanking me for my posting on the two birth mothers I interviewed. I wanted to respond to some of the important questions that were asked.

1) "Do you search for birth mothers?" -- I have never systematically searched for birth parents. These two women were the first and only birth mothers that I have located. I have been requested by the CCAA not to engage in this activity, due largely to its potential abuse, and respect that request.

2) "Shouldn't birth parent searching be left to the adoptee to perform?" --
I will answer that with a personal anecdote: My daughter Meikina is 8 years old. A few months ago she asked me why her birth mother had given her up, and I had to admit that I didn't know. Her need to know (now and in the future) is my primary reason for searching. I would love to be able to sit down and talk with the birth mother of my child and find out the reasons she felt compelled to give up a beautiful two-day old baby girl. I want to know so that my daughter can know. Knowledge empowers, and my primary responsibility as a parent is to empower my children.

Would I want to initiate a relationship between Meikina and her birth mother? No, that is Meikina's decision. But China is changing so rapidly -- people move, buildings are rebuilt, orphanage staff changes -- in 10 years when she makes that decision the trail (if any) will be gone. So, the burden is upon me to gain as much information, and put it away until she asks about it one day. To say that we shouldn't search for birth parents because it is the perogative of the adoptee fails to address the rapid changes that are occurring. In 10 years they in all probability WON'T be able to search, and then the burden of that failure will be upon us as parents for failing to act.

3) "Did the two birth mothers I interviewed know their children would be adopted to the U.S.?" - Neither woman had knowledge of the international adoption program, and it did not play any role in their decision.

4) "Did the women wish to have contact with the adoptive families?" -- Yes, both indicated a desire to correspond with the adoptive families, but I firmly believe the decision to communicate rests with the adoptive families.

5) "Why did you publish these two stories anyway?" -- My only desire was to enlighten adoptive parents as to the reasons why some (not all) girls are abandoned in China. I believe that the experiences of these two women are representative of a large segment of birth mothers. I have no desire to encourage or facilitate the location of birth parents.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Tale of Two Birthmothers

I remember feeling that my job was getting just a tad routine. Not to the point of boredom, but after visiting more than 50 orphanages, photographing hundreds (if not thousands) of finding locations, and talking with scores of finders, it was all becoming a bit predictable. At least I thought so as I climbed out of the taxi in front of the home of "Hua Mei Xiao" (not her real name). "OK," I said to my wife, "Let's hurry and get this done." I was anxious to wrap up our last finding location -- this little farm house in a village in eastern Jiangxi Province.

We introduced ourselves to the finder, a grand-motherly woman who greeted us in the courtyard of her one-room house. We explained that we were there to find out more about the child she had found 2 years earlier. We had learned that she had also fostered the child after she was found, and wondered how that had come to be.

She explained that when she had found the child, she had contacted the orphanage and reported her. She had been fostering children for many years, so Mei Xiao speculated that the birth parents had probably known that, and that is why they had abandoned the child in her courtyard. It all seemed very logical.

I asked her to point out exactly where the child had been found, and she responded with a sweep of her hand. "Over there" she stated matter-of-factly. Thinking I had missed something, I asked her to show me again. Again she proffered only a wide sweep of her hand. A bell went off in my head.

I don't understand much Chinese, something my wife finds useful when she occasionally lets loose on me in her native tongue. Instead, my wife does the talking, and I do the watching, and as I watched Hua Mei Xiao, I knew that she was hiding something from us.

"Lan," I whispered, "ask her if she knows the birth mother." "Are you nuts?" was her response, but I told her to ask the question. I had a gut feeling.

As my wife posed the question to Mei Xiao she grew instantly quiet and reflective. Finally, after a few moments, she acknowledged that she did.

I grew excited, and machine-gunned questions at Lan to ask. I couldn't believe it! After all these years, I was finally going to be able to find the Holy Grail -- a birth mother of one of my girls.

Mei Xiao led us into her home, and sat us down at her table. I asked her to tell us about the birth mother. She replied that she was about 28, lived on a farm, was married, and had a older girl and a young boy in her family.

As we sat and talked, we discovered that not only did she know the birth mother of the girl we were researching, but also of another unknown child found 9 years ago. After I returned home, I aggressively worked to locate this child, and in September 2005, after watching my project DVD, an adoptive mother contacted me. Her daughter had also been found by Mei Xiao. She was the other girl.

So on this visit we returned to this small village and once again entered the courtyard of Mei Xiao. In my camera bag I carried DNA kits from Genetree in Salt Lake City. Mei Xiao was happy to see us again, and as we reintroduced ourselves, we explained why we had returned. She told us that the birth parents lived a distance away, but that she would arrange a meeting the next morning.

As I sat across from the two women, my heart raced. I wanted to know each of their stories, not just for the families I represented, but for myself. Perhaps the stories they would tell me would parallel those of three other birth mothers, living far away in an unknown place, who in the darkness of a solitary night had also decided to give up their daughters. So, as I addressed these two women, I was asking them questions not just for their daughters, but for my own.

“Li Feng”

Li Feng (not her real name) sat nervously in her brown corduroy jacket and white turtle neck. I assured her that it was safe to talk freely with us, and that no one would ever be able to locate her. I explained why it was important for adoptive families to understand their daughters’ histories, and that what she explained today would be valuable to many families in understanding how their daughters came to be in their lives.

She began by telling me that she was 35 years old, and that she had been married for 15 years. Her oldest child, a girl, was born shortly after she was married and was now 15 years old. A year after the birth of her first child, she became pregnant with her second child. She gave birth to another girl, and so she and her husband placed this child with a family member. Her third daughter was born four years later, and it was this girl who was brought to the orphanage. Soon after giving birth, she contacted a family member that fostered for the orphanage and asked her to see that the child was put in the care of the local orphanage. This foster mother called the orphanage and told them she had found the girl in her courtyard.

The following year Li Feng had another child, this time a boy. They then contacted the family member who was raising their second girl and retrieved their daughter, now 6, bringing her home to live with them.

Their third daughter was adopted by an American family.

“Hai Yue”

Hai Yue (not her real name) was dressed in a burgundy leather jacket with faux-fur lining, covering a light turtle-neck sweater. She had long black hair which was pulled back by a silver broach. Thirty-three and married for 9 years, she also had her first child soon after getting married. This child was a girl. Six years later, she was again pregnant and had another girl. A family friend suggested that she could contact a friend of hers in another village on Hai Yue’s behalf; this friend fostered children for the orphanage. As soon as Hai Yue was brought to the recovery area of the hospital, the fosterer was called and asked to come pick up the child and bring her to the orphanage.

A year later Hai Yue gave birth to a boy.

Her second daughter was adopted into an American family in 2003.

Both women reported that they had registered their pending pregnancies with the village Family Planning Office. Registration is required by law and entitles the family an ID card for their new child. This ID card allows the mother access to prenatal care and will also allow the family to register the child for school when they get older. A person without an ID card is persona non-grata in Chinese society.

I asked them what they had done when their newborn child was a girl and they had decided they wouldn’t keep her. They said that they had returned to the Family Planning Office and reported that their newborn daughter had died. No one questioned their stories and the pregnancy was voided from the records, making them eligible to have another child.

China’s “One-Child” policy allows many rural families to have a second child if their first child is a girl. Since both Li Feng and Hai Yue had given birth to girls as first children, they were allowed another child in order to try and have a boy. Thus, both participated in what Kay Johnson terms China’s “one son or two children” exemption (“Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son: Abandonment, Adoption, and Orphanage Care in China [Yeong & Yeong Book Company, St. Paul, MN], p. 55).

The actions of these two women has broad implications to the demographic imbalance in China. Consensus views estimate that based on census records and mortality figures obtained from Family Planning, China will experience a demographic imbalance of 40 million men in the coming decades. Since both women reported that their abandoned daughters had died, their deaths were registered in the Family Planning records and permission was given for each to have another child. However, both girls were actually alive and well in an orphanage. Thus, the mortality statistics for girls in each of their villages were inaccurate, being inflated by a false death. If their actions are similar to the thousands of other women who are abandoning their girls each year, it is probable that the mortality figures published by the Chinese Government are largely inaccurate, and the population “bubble” is exaggerated.

Next, I asked both women to elaborate on the causes for their abandoning one of their daughters. There is much speculation about this among adoptive parents. Although the answers provided by these two women are not statistically random, I feel they are representative.

I asked each birth mother to quantify on a scale of 1 to 10 how significant each of four pressures was on them to abandon.. The first was a perceived need by the birth couple to have a son to work on their farm. Both answered that this was not a significant pressure, since they perceived both sexes as being capable of farm work. Each also valued lowly the pressure felt by the birth couple to have a son to carry on the family name, although Li Feng admitted that her husband felt some desire for a son for that reason. When asked if retirement care was a major consideration, both stated that factored very low in their considerations.

Finally, I asked what role paternal grandparents played in their decision, and both indicated that this was the primary reason the birth parents had abandoned their daughter. Li Feng indicated that the paternal grandmother was especially concerned that they have a son, primarily to carry on the family name but also due to fears that the family would not be viewed well if they had two girls. Apparently having a son is viewed by some rural families as a sign of biological success, and failure to have a son is viewed as a source of shame.

When asked if the paternal grandparents had been dead at the time their daughter was born, would they have abandoned that daughter, both adamantly stated that they would have kept the girl.

These answers confirm what I have perceived from many different cultural sources in China, be they Family Planning propaganda in the countryside or answers from orphanage directors and common “man-on-the-street” interviews (see my blog “Why Girls Are Abandoned in China”, 10/26/05, All suggest that the pressure to abandon, at least at this juncture in China’s history, comes primarily from the paternal grandparents of the child. The need for a son to work the farm or provide retirement income in old age appear to be distant secondary influences on a couple faced with keeping a second daughter. Primary is the perceived need to carry on the family name by the husband’s parents.

As we wrapped up our discussion, I posed one last question to Li Feng and Hai Yu. How often does each of them think about their “lost daughter”? The answer from both was immediate and identical: every day. Both showed in their faces the regret and shame they felt for what they had been forced to do – perhaps not forced in any literal sense, but in a cultural one. Out of respect for their elders, both of these women and their husbands felt they could not fight the pressure of their parents. Although they regretted their decisions, both admitted that if the circumstances were the same today, they would probably do it all over again.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Finances of Baby Trafficking

The recent news story of baby trafficking in the Hunan Province of China offers a disturbing view into the hidden market for young children. Although many Western adoptive parents read such stories with awe and puzzlement, this case has struck particularly close to home, given the involvement of individuals involved with the international adoption program. This recent event represents a convergence of two powerful market forces, the international adoption program, and the domestic demand in China for infants.

Unfortunately, Western News organizations have misunderstood both the causes and forces behind these stories. Reuters, for example, asserts “The sale of children, and women, is a nationwide problem in China, where stringent rules on family planning allow couples to have just one child, at least in cities.” ( This statement is flawed factually and logically, but the truth does lie beneath the surface.

Baby trafficking has its foundation in childless couples wanting offspring, a condition that exists in every country of the world. Since childlessness has nothing to do with the one-child policy, the demand for children in China is not related to any governmental policy. It is important to understand that most of the people buying these black-market children are married and have no children. Thus, they are seeking young, healthy infants of either sex.

What puzzles most adoptive families is why there would be a black market at all for babies, given the perceived abundance of unwanted baby girls in China’s orphanages. Why don’t these families simply go to an orphanage and adopt a child, rather than face the potential consequences of buying a baby on the black market? The case of “Xiao Mei” (not her real name) will serve to answer that question.

Xiao Mei is a 33 year-old married ovarian cancer survivor. Unable to have biological children, in 2004 she began contacting orphanages to arrange an adoption of a baby girl. The first orphanage she called was the Guangzhou orphanage, since she and her husband live in that city. She was told that only registered residents of Guangzhou are permitted to adopt from the Guangzhou orphanage. Additionally, she was informed that families adopting had to be at least 30 years old, have a stable income, and have no other children. She was told to contact the orphanage in the city where she was registered.

She then contacted the Zhuzhou orphanage in Hunan Province, her city of registry. There she was informed that because she was married to someone from Henan Province, that she must contact the orphanage in that area. Zhuzhou was unwilling to allow them to adopt a child from their orphanage.

When she contacted the Zhumadian orphanage in Henan Province, her husband’s city of registry, she was informed that there were no healthy babies available for adoption. She was told, however, that if she were willing to adopt an older child, or a child with special needs, that there were some available. Since Xiao Mei wanted a child less than a year old and healthy, she declined (Xiao Mei is atypical in requesting a child up to one year old. Most domestic adoptions occur before the child is 2 months old).

Finally, Xiao Mei contacted the Yulin City orphanage in Guangxi Province. Here at last she met with success. Having few adoption criteria, the Yulin orphanage indicated that there were several healthy young babies available for domestic adoption.

But by this time, Xiao Mei was contacted by a friend who knew a family that had just given birth to an unwanted baby girl. This family already had an older girl, and didn’t want to keep the second girl. Would Xiao Mei be interested in adopting this child? Xiao Mei jumped at the chance, and after paying the mutual friend 700 yuan ($90), and assisting in the delivery expenses of 6,600 yuan ($800), she assumed custody of the week-old child. All arrangements were done orally, and neither party knew of the other.

Why was Xiao Mei willing to purchase her daughter instead of formally adopting her from an orphanage? The decision was not financially motivated, since in addition to the delivery expenses she will also have to pay the fine to register her daughter and obtain the I.D. card required for schooling. Xiao Mei simply decided that it was easier to obtain a black-market baby. In addition to the paperwork that all orphanages would require, Xiao Mei was frustrated by the bureaucracy she had experienced in her discussions with the orphanages.

As adoptive parents, we might find this puzzling. Often we assume that the children that are adopted internationally from China are the children that remain unadopted by Chinese families. But as Xiao Mei’s experience shows, this might not in fact be the case. It seems that some orphanages engaged in international adoptions have established barriers to domestic adoptions, be they high adoption donations (upwards of 20,000 yuan ($2,500) in some cases), demographic constraints, or geographic requirements. Two of the four orphanages Xiao Mei contacted were unwilling to adopt a child to her, when there were patently children available; instead, they erected geographical constrains that prevented her from “qualifying” to adopt. Only one of the four, the Yulin orphanage in Guangxi, seemed willing to adopt a child to her.

Why would the Guangzhou and Zhuzhou orphanages be unwilling to adopt a child to someone within China, while actively participating in the international adoption program? As in most questions of this nature, it is helpful to follow the money.

Prior to around 2001, orphanages participating in the international adoption program were permitted to submit a CCAA-calculated number of dossiers each year. Under this program, the CCAA anticipated the number of children that would be internationally adopted each year, and assigned each orphanage a number of children they could submit for adoption. Although this resulted in a balance being struck between “supply” and “demand”, it had the unfortunate consequence of having the directors hold back dossiers for older children or those with special needs. In 2000 and 2001, I would read of families being told by the CCAA that there were no older children available for adoption, yet simultaneously touring orphanages with scores of older children playing in their halls. This discrepancy was a result of simple market forces – directors, working under their quota, were submitting only what they perceived as the most marketable children – healthy infant girls.

In 2001, the CCAA lifted the quota system and allowed orphanages to forward dossiers on all the children in their care. The Waiting Child program was established, and many more older and special needs children were adopted. But now another result occurred: the perception by some directors of their children as internationally adoptable commodities.

The simple reality of the international adoption program is that each child in an orphanage that is in the CCAA’s program is worth $3,000 in donations to that orphanage. The more children an orphanage adopts internationally, the more revenue it receives. For these orphanages, the $100,000 to $500,000 in annual donations represents a huge resource with which to build new facilities, improve salaries and wages for orphanage employees, and otherwise improve the lives of the other children. Thus, some directors have sought opportunities to increase their revenue by various means, some legal and others illegal.

One legal method employed by some orphanages is to make alliances with nearby non-internationally adopting orphanages to provide children to the orphanage. No doubt some sort of “profit-sharing” arrangement is devised. This allows the primary orphanage to submit more dossiers, and also allows the secondary orphanage to obtain much needed revenue that would otherwise not be available. Both benefit.

But the recent case in Hunan illustrates another method, this one illegal, to increase the supply of children. Allegedly the director of the Hengyang County orphanage (an orphanage that participates in the international adoption program) brokered kidnaped children into his orphanage, as well as orphanages in other Provinces. Given the highly lucrative nature of the international adoption program, the question is not how did this happen, but how come it hasn’t happened more often. As the above-quoted Reuters article accurately stated, "Some families that cannot have children of their own are desperate for kids, so these factors combine into a way for orphanages to make big money." Big money indeed.

Something must be done to rectify the current program. One possible solution would be the re-implementation of the quota system, with a few variations. First, special needs and older children would be exempt from the quota. Thus, only healthy infant girls would be subject to dossier limitations. Although this would cap the potential income a particular orphanage would obtain through international adoptions, it would discourage and prevent abuses like those seen in Hengyang – there would no longer be the financial incentive. Additionally, the quota would necessitate more orphanages being brought into the international program, since each of the current orphanages would no longer be able to submit as many dossiers. This would effectively spread the benefit of foreign adoptions among more orphanages, resulting in quality of life improvements being received by more of China’s orphans.

The exposure of this trafficking ring has cast a seriously bad light on the Chinese adoption program. No doubt the participants will be dealt with swiftly and harshly. But the real problem lies in the underlying financial structure that forms the basis of the foreign adoption program. Until the CCAA addresses the inequalities brought about by the current system, it is simply a matter of time before another director seeks to gain in the same way as Hengyang’s did. Perhaps some already do.