Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Book Review: Leslie Wang's Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China

Leslie K. Wang’s book “Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China” is a well-researched treatise on China’s adoption program, the result of personal experiences of the author working in various orphanages, combined with academic studies. The central thesis of the book, that China has allowed international adoption of its children as a means to increase the overall value and productivity of its remaining citizens, is a fairly new idea in the adoption community. Few adoptive parents realize the overall goals and objectives of the Chinese government in encouraging and promoting adoption, and for this single reason alone Wang’s book is a valuable contribution to the history of China’s adoption program.

Wang spends considerable space putting a personalized face on the orphans in China, mostly special needs. Her time in the Haifeng Children’s Welfare Institute (a pseudonym), an orphanage that participated in the international adoption program, illuminates the issues present in the Social Welfare Institutes regarding the severely handicapped. Wang gained access to the Haifeng orphanage as a volunteer for “Tomorrow’s Children,” a Christian faith-based NGO that assisted the orphanage in caring for its special needs children. Her experiences in Haifeng are contrasted with those she had in the Yongping orphanage (also a pseudonym) near Beijing where another group, “Helping Hands,” worked. This group was comprised of expat women who, as Wang describes, were looking to put meaning into their lives as their husbands went off to work.  The contrast between these two groups – how their methods were accepted or rejected by the nannies that worked in each facility, by the government, and by the children themselves, is fascinating to read, and provides a valuable assessment of the damage that “first-world” attitudes can sometimes have in such settings. 

But the core of the book is devoted to the idea that China has allowed the exportation of her children with a simple goal in mind: To increase the overall productivity of its people with the stated goal to become a first-world nation. With this goal in mind, Chinese leaders feel that children abandoned by largely rural, uneducated and less productive birth families in a real sense act as weights to the progress of China overall. By removing these children from the national population, the thinking goes, the government accepts that the remaining population would increase in education and productivity.  Wang states that “Although urban little emperors bear the heavy responsibility of building a glorious future for their country, a much larger number of youths from rural areas are viewed at best as a hindrance, and at worst as a dangerous threat, to Chinese modernization” (p. 29-30). When viewed in this light, the actions of the CCAA and other national governmental agencies can be clearly understood, especially as it relates to ethical breeches and scandals in China’s adoption program. Simply stated, orphanage actions such as baby-buying and Family Planning confiscations achieve a national interest, even if those same actions result in lapses in international treaties and standards. 

It is important to understand that China’s international adoption program was started as a result of advocacy work initiated by World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP), a private adoption agency based in Washington State. This agency was the first to be allowed to adopt Chinese children in 1991 from the Luoyang orphanage in Henan Province, the same Province where Wang volunteered in the Haifeng orphanage.  It was WACAP’s advocacy that convinced the Chinese that the benefits of international adoption in terms of financial resources and outsourcing the costs of childcare outweighed the loss of face. The creation of China’s international adoption bureau, the CCAA, occurred one year later. In 1992, 206 Chinese children were adopted to the U.S. (232 internationally), a number that grew to 4,206 children in 1998 (6,012 internationally), when some orphanages began to feel pressure to recruit children for adoption. By 2002, when 6,119 children were adopted to the U.S. (10,194 internationally), many, if not most, orphanages were heavily involved in baby-buying and other recruitment methods to satisfy the demand for healthy, young infant girls.  In 2005, international press revealed that orphanages in central China’s Hunan Province had been buying babies, and in 2008 families that had adopted older, “aging-out” children from the same Luoyang orphanage came forward indicating that their adoptive children had been lured away from birth families under the false pretense of gaining an education and employment in the West. 

Which brings me to the one objection I have to Wang’s assessment of China’s program. Although Wang gives a hat tip to reports of scandals in China’s program, overall she maintains that the direction of the adoption program is dictated by Beijing. She states, for example, that it is the outcome of the HCIA (Hague Convention) “combined with a proactive effort by the top sending countries – namely Russia and China – to lower the number of kids they place abroad” (p.131) that resulted in the collapse in international adoptions after 2004 (Russia) and 2005 (China). Wang also writes that the PRC “severely limited the supply of healthy girls following the Hunan child trafficking scandal” (p.132), and still later observed that “it is highly significant that, as the country’s global economic position has improved, the number of children it sends abroad has declined dramatically” (p. 148). Intentionally or not, these and other similar statements by Wang imply that the number of children adopted internationally is controlled by the Central Government, controlled from the top down. There is no doubt that this is a commonly held view, even by those involved in the adoption community, but it is largely a misperception.

The idea ignores the well-documented data and experiences in China’s orphanages themselves. There is no question that China’s program took a dramatic turn in late 2005. In fact, when one graphs the findings (the number of children entering the orphanage) by the orphanages in the provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan and Jiangxi, etc., the main providers of adoptable children in 2005, one can see the decline beginning in December 2005, exactly when the Hunan scandal was being reported on inside China. In February 2006, three months after the scandal broke and when the decline was already visible, the CCAA (the office of the national government responsible for international adoptions) began actively pushing orphanages to submit as many children as they could, even severely special needs. When the number of submissions continued to fall, only then did China change the criteria for who could adopt. The lack of definitive action to curtail corruption in the face of various adoption scandals since Hunan should also be seen in this light.

Thus, the decline in adoptions from China was not a result of top-down actions such as Hague implementation, progress in economic circumstances, access to ultrasounds, the 2008 Olympics, or any of the other “macro” explanations that have been given. Rather, it was a bottom-up reaction by millions of Chinese birth families, most of whom learned for the first time in December 2005 that their children were being “sold” to Westerners by the orphanages, and consciously chose to no longer cooperate, largely out of fear for their child’s safety and well-being. As a result, the number of healthy children entering the orphanages fell dramatically, and the apparent emphasis shifted, as Wang documents, from healthy young infants to older special needs children. I say apparent, because it was the disappearance of the healthy children that made the adoption of the special needs children both more desirable by Western families due to the longer wait times for a healthy child, and more visible to outsiders. But the mission of the national government is still firmly in place: Adopt out as many children, healthy or special needs, as possible to elevate the productivity and desirability of the rest of China’s citizenry. 

Wang’s book is a highly interesting view of the China program, and she brings many perceptive and important observations to the conversation moving forward. Do Western NGOs do more harm than good? Are their efforts sustainable? Should the international adoption program be used as a tool of the Chinese government to outsource orphan care? These and many other considerations are addressed and explored by Wang in what is a fascinating read.

Leslie's book can be ordered here.




6 comments:

Jeb Jones said...

The theory that China's international adoption program was promoted by the central government as a means to increase the overall value and productivity of its citizens is interesting, but based on the numbers, it seems that any effect would at best be vanishingly small.

According to this wiki page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_in_China), the prevalence of disability in China is ~5%. China's population is ~1.3 billion. Even at its peak in 2005, international adoption from China to all countries topped out at about 15,000 (http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/adoptionstatsintl.html), which is just a hair over one one thousandth of one percent of the population. That fraction is so small in comparison to the ~5% disability rate, that it seems unlikely that the main reason for the Chinese government to promote international adoption would be as suggested.

-J

Research-China.Org said...

Jeb:

Thank you so much for your comment. The issue is not how many total children are removed, but how many are removed from State care. The IA program has, at its primary objective, the outsourcing of care of orphans, and the benefits derived from that. It is, in the Chinese mind, an additional win that these children are removed from the population inside China. But you are correct that this isn't a big mover on a national scale, but is is very significant as it relates to the social welfare program, which China is reluctant to fund, and which the West have supported through their donations and other in-kind or monetary donations.

Suzanne said...


China was certainly facing a serious population problem - but what I don't know is were rural, uneducated families reproducing at a higher rate than the more educated urban families?

Research-China.Org said...

This study should answer your question:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12286564

The study showed that rural population in China had a significantly higher reproduction rate than urban populations. This has been shown to be true all over the world -- the more urbanized and educated a population becomes, the few children they have.

Suzanne said...


Right. This was my assumption but I did not have the numbers. So how does this important fact fit into the author's narrative that the Chinese were motivated chiefly by a desire to reduce the number of uneducated people in order to improve the value and productivity of its people overall? It is an interesting hypothesis and may have some elements of truth in it, but if the Chinese needed to reduce their population trends then it makes perfect sense that they would go first to the major source of the overpopulation - those groups with the highest reproduction rates.

Marianna said...

If reducing undesirables from costing the state was their goal, it's likely backfired. My 4 girls are amazing. Talented, hard working, excellent students, good people. I'm sure that description fits the majority of adootees. China's loss.