Monday, July 29, 2019

Is Zuyuan a Viable Option for Birth Parent Searching?

This essay was originally published on our subscription blog, but several readers felt it was important enough to be shared publicly.


Imagine you are wanting to set up the perfect database to locate and reunite Chinese birth parents and adoptees. Imagine that the birth parents relinquished their child illegally, and could face potential fines or jail for doing so (at least in their own minds if not in reality). How would you go about doing this? How would you get the birth parents and the adoptees to submit their DNA to your database to be matched? And how would you do it on a large enough scale that matches would be likely?

Several logistical questions arise: What database? Who processes the DNA? Who pays for the database, DNA processing, advertising, etc.? How are matches made? How are the matches communicated? In which country would the database be managed?

These questions are important, especially when it comes to China. As you research, you learn that any DNA database that sets up shop in China by definition must partner with the national Chinese government, and that the government will "oversee" your operations. You learn that most of the current DNA databases don't use the most current DNA technology in order to save money. You learn that Chinese birth families are inherently suspicious, afraid of the government, afraid of being discovered for having relinquished a child. 

So, how do you locate birth families and convince them to participate in your project? How do you convince an adoptee to participate? How much do you charge, and to whom?

Adoptive families have sought a perfect solution to this problem for years. In 2014, we set up DNAConnect.Org as an attempt to provide a solution to the DNA problem. We structured our protocol based on the following assumptions:

1) Privacy -- Since birth parents are terrified of being discovered and "outed" to the Chinese government, it was important that no one in China have access to any information about birth families. Aside from DNAConnect and the adoptee, no one would know that a birth family was searching for a child, no one but the birth family would know when a match was made, and it would be impossible for the police or government to ever know that a birth family had relinquished a child.

2) Cost -- Due to the very real economic differences between China and the West, we felt the burden of the testing should be borne by the adoptive families, not the Chinese. This was a consideration both economically and practically: Chinese families are financially disadvantaged when compared to Western families, and their natural instincts would make it more difficult to convince them to test if there was a significant cost involved. 

3) Transparency -- If a match is made, we felt having an impartial mediator was important to insure that all parties were protected, and that no "qualifying considerations" would impact the decision to introduce the parties to each other.  This is critical especially in cases where Family Planning or kidnapping may have played a role, as these matches represent a potential scandal should word get out. In cases of impropriety, there is a significant incentive for the Chinese government to hide these matches. Thus, transparency is critical.  

These three considerations: Privacy, cost, and transparency are essential to creating a successful data base, and to safeguard the participants.  

Recently, families have been made aware of a new player in China, Zuyuan. Zuyuan is a private enterprise soliciting the DNA from Chinese adoptees, and ostensibly working to recruit birth families to also participate so that matches can be made.  Zuyuan itself is affiliated with a DNA company in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province called "Gene Town." "Gene Town" is apparently a general purpose DNA processing company, with no focus on birth parents or searching (even references to this company are sparse, and we could locate no official company website). It appears that Zuyuan is simply utilizing Gene Town's DNA processing abilities, but has no official ties to the company. In other words, Zuyuan appears to using "Gene Town" to give itself credibility. 

Let us take a look at how Zuyuan has structured its program to see if there is a good probability that it will be successful, success being measured by random matches being made between unknown birth families and adoptees. Any DNA company can take two identified people and process a DNA sample for matching and confirmation. What is needed is for unknown families to be matched "randomly," without prior knowledge of their existence. 

First, Zuyuan has created a website directly targeting Chinese adoptees. Adoptees are presented with two choices: Purchase a DNA kit for $99, or upload already processed DNA from 23andMe, Ancestry, FamilyTree, etc.  There is no apparent cost to uploading.  Thus, Zuyuan's test costs the same as 23andMe and other U.S. companies. Since most adoptive families have already processed their DNA with 23andMe, Ancestry, or similar U. S. data base, we can't imagine that many adoptive families will purchase another kit; rather they will upload their child's DNA to Zuyuan. Thus, little revenue can be expected to originate from the adoptee side of the process.

Things get tricky when one looks at the Chinese side of the company. A Baidu search reveals virtually no web presence for Zuyuan inside China: A Baidu search for "Zuyuan" (祖源寻亲) brings no results for the company on the first fifteen pages of results, although one press story of a Dutch adoptee's search is seen. But results bring no Chinese website, no company information, nothing. It is invisible in China. As a result, no one that we have talked within China had even heard of them. This is a problem, at least in the short term. 

Zuyuan has set up a WeChat account that allows a birth family (if they ever were to come across it) to attempt to order a DNA kit. Clicking on the WeChat icon takes a birth family to a questionaire. Before they can order a DNA kit (supposedly), a family must answer the following questions:

1) Your name (Can use an alias)
2) Who are you looking for? Check a box next to "Daughter, Son, Older Sister, Younger Sister, Older Brother, Younger Sister, Other family member."
3) Where do you live? (Drop down menus for Province, City, etc.)
4) Your birth date (Year, month, day)
5) Your phone number
6) WeChat ID (optional)
7) Do you remember the birth date of the child you gave for adoption (Yes/No)
8) Do you remember the date you gave your child for adoption? (Yes/No)
9) How you gave up your child for adoption? (Sent to orphanage/government, put in public place, gave to "finder", gave to middle person, missing/kidnapped, other.)
10) Do you remember the exact location where you gave up your child for adoption? (Yes/No)
11) Does the given up child have any siblings? (Yes/No)
12) Do you agree to have your contact information shared in public? (Yes/No)
13-15) Upload family photo(s)
16) Tell your search story, including emotions, search experience, etc. (300 words or less)

The first question one should ask is why would Zuyuan want to know a lot of this information, and would a birth family complete this questionnaire if they ever found it? Adoptive families are already reticent to put their child's actual name on their 23andMe profile, for example, out of fear that in the future some insurance company might get the data. Imagine the anxiety a Chinese birth family would feel if asked "How did you give up your child," "what is your phone number?", your birth date, etc. In other words, most birth families will not complete this questionnaire. To get a phone in China one must show a government form of ID. Thus, requiring a family to put their phone number is demanding that they identify themselves to the company and the government.  This is not a small risk, like an insurance company knowing some disease characteristics of one's DNA. This is the government learning that a birth family committed a crime.  

Nevertheless, we asked five birth families inside China to complete the questionnaire with their actual information, including their actual phone numbers.  After taking several minutes each to answer each question (most require answers to continue), when they entered "submit" at the end all five received an error message saying "Your phone could not be verified." We are not sure what this error message means, but again it will cause birth families considerable anxiety to realize that Zuyuan is "verifying" any of the information they entered. 

One must wonder why Zuyuan has most of the questions on the questionnaire.  Given that it will, without a doubt, cause many birth families to not participate, one must wonder what the benefit is to Zuyuan? Why the need for the information on how a child was relinquished? Is it to allow Zuyuan to filter out which families they will or will not assist? Who knows. But these invasive questions are a significant red flag, and would prevent me, who does not even live in China, from encouraging a family to answer them. 

Cost is also a significant disincentive for a birth family to test using Zuyuan. It is expensive (699 yuan) for a birth family to order a DNA kit (assuming the birth family ever was made aware of the company) and Zuyuan encourages birth families to test both birth parents, doubling the fee. Zuyuan did admit to us that if desired only one birth parent needs to be tested, but the default option is to encourage both to test. This also betrays a "profitability" incentive on the part of Zuyuan. Combined with the need to have the birth family complete a questionnaire that asks questions and demands information that could jeopardize the privacy and security of the birth family themselves, several large and significant hurdles to participation by birth parents appear.  

But Jamie, one of the "founders" of Zuyuan, and probably an employee of "Gene Town", also creates issues. While in China Lan was contacted by Jamie through WeChat (it is unknown how he got Lan's WeChat ID, but probably from one of the many search articles that have been published). At first, he simply asked for us to send him the DNA results of one of the birth mothers we had tested. Lan asked him why he needed it, and he answered that he worked for Zuyuan. He indicated he was working with the Chinese government on a big DNA data base to help with the search. When Lan didn't answer his messages immediately, he became aggressive, sending Lan the "new rules" concerning DNA collection inside China, telling Lan she was breaking the law, etc., etc.  He asked if she worked for DNAConnect, again insisting that our work was illegal. These messages came through non-stop for days.  

The birth mother whose DNA Jamie sought was put in touch with Jamie by an adoptive family that contacted her as a result of seeing her search story on Facebook. The adoptive family sent her contact information to Jamie without any permission (we had already collected her DNA). Jamie contacted the birth mother through WeChat. As she tells it the following occurred:

"[Jamie] sent a request to add me. He said he could help me find my daughter. If anyone says they can help me, I always add them as a volunteer. He asked me to pay for DNA. I said that I have already done it, and I have done it inside China and abroad. He asked me how I did it in the United States. I said the same way as he told me to. Then he found out on the Internet that my daughter’s information is on your platform. When Jamie asked me, I would tell them that I had entered the DNA in the United States, and no one ever told me that I couldn’t say anything about it. No one besides Jamie told me that it was illegal. I can only say that the government sold my daughter to a foreigner. The government didn't help me find my daughter, ignoring me for three years. When I got in touch with Lan, I found out my daughter was adopted outside China. I am relying on my own for finding my daughter. I have to try whatever method I have. Otherwise, how can I feel at ease? My daughter has been missing for 18 years. I am uncomfortable in my heart. Ah, because of long-term anxiety, my body has been bad, now I can't walk for a long leg. I can't be heavy. I can't be too tired. I have been recuperating my body. Jamie asked me again and again to pay for DNA. I promised I would do it, but I really don't have the money to do it now. I said that I can make money when I am better. If you have money, you must do it. As long as there is a little bit of hope, I will not give up."

Jamie continued pushing this birth mother to pay for a DNA test, even when she told him she had already done one. That is why he hit up Lan asking for the results. 

So, what is the bottom line regarding Zuyuan? Several important points need to be emphasized:

1) If this birth mother had wanted to do some research on Jamie and Zuyuan before spending the money to get tested, there is nothing in Chinese available regarding the company. No website, no media stories, nothing that would give her any confidence that this is a reliable and serious data base. This could change with time, but at this moment Chinese birth families have no way of hearing about Zuyuan, or learning about it. For adoptive families this is a significant concern.

2) Assuming the birth mother decided to go forward, she would have needed to register with Zuyuan to order the DNA kit (ignoring the apparent website issues). The invasive questions in Zuyuan's questionnaire would no doubt give her pause, and make her second guess her decision. Since it is common knowledge that any DNA data base inside China must be overseen by the government, she would question if she wanted to expose herself by giving the circumstances of her child's entrance into the orphanage. Give the government her name? Phone number? Most would opt out at that moment.

3) The fees associated with doing the test provided a significant barrier to this birth mother, as it will no doubt be to most. On am income adjusted basis, the 699 yuan to a Chinese family is the same as $2,510 for a U.S. family (doubled if both parents are unnecessarily tested). Adoptive families must ask themselves how likely it is that a birth family will spend that kind of money. Few will.

4) It seems clear that Jamie is one of the primary sources for the current misinformation regarding DNA collection inside China. The recent "rules" relate to the commercial collection of DNA for profit and study by pharmaceutical companies.  "The licensing framework treats genetic materials as unique resources for the nation’s collective good and places them under stringent state control," write Yongxi Chen and Lingqiao Song in their analysis of the new rules

"This robust state control is mainly grounded on biosecurity considerations and the desire for national competitiveness. Anxiety over bio-piracy was triggered by media coverage of the Anhui incident in 1997. Two occupational epidemiologists affiliated with Harvard University collected blood samples for a genetic project from over 16,000 Chinese peasants in Anhui Province without appropriate informed consent, and were subsequently disciplined by the university. Prominent Chinese scientists, in particular Chinese geneticists, called for the government to undertake actions to protect the nation’s genetic resources against foreign exploitation. The enactment of the Interim Measures was a prompt response."  

I wrote Lingqiao Song, asking her how the new rules would apply to adoptive families testing birth families inside China: "Does the regulations of China outlaw the personal collection of DNA from a birth parent and transport of that DNA sample to the U.S. for processing by a non-Chinese DNA lab?" Lingqiao's response was short: "From my understanding, I do not think collection of blood outbound for parentage purpose is under the regulation of the interim ordinance of human genetic resource."

In other words, the "new rules" do not impact, affect, or have anything to do with the private collection and transportation of DNA outside China for birth parent searching.  

But Jamie, who is trying to get into the search market, is telling people, searchers, and adoptive families otherwise in an attempt to scare them into not testing located birth families, but rather have them pay Zuyuan.  However, it is cheaper, insures greater privacy, is more transparent, and presents a much better chance for success to test a birth family through 23andMe or similar, and uploading it to GedMatch. There is, in fact, no obvious benefit for a birth family to test with Zuyuan, and considerable downsides. 

Jamie inflates the relationships he has with other search groups on his webpage. Before today (July 22, 2019), his website asserted that Codis DNA from adoptees would be "transferred to all major Codis DNA databases operated by family member search Volunteer Groups in China." According to Jamie these groups include "Baobeihuajia, Help For Family Reunion, Di'An DNA Reunion and Jiangyin Tracing Volunteers." 

When we asked our friends at "Baby Come Home" (Baobeihuajia), "Help For Family Reunion" and "Jiangyin Tracing Volunteers" if they had ever dealt with Jamie, all three denied any cooperation, had not had DNA from Jamie uploaded to their databases, and were upset that Jamie was associating Zuyuan with their groups. Within four hours of our inquiries, Jamie had removed all mention of their groups on his website. It is unknown what databases Zuyuan utilizes, if any.

I don't know why Zuyuan is marketing so hard to the adoptive community, and spending so little resources gathering DNA from Chinese birth families.  Perhaps it is to try and again fragment the search community with yet another shiny bauble, or perhaps it is to allow the Chinese government to control the search narrative, and prevent "face-losing" stories from coming forth. Perhaps Zuyuan (Jamie) is sincerely wanting to help the search community, but is just loose with his facts and bad at business. But there is no doubt that they are making it easy for adoptees to send in their DNA, but very, very difficult and expensive for birth families. The invasive nature of their registration process, the high cost of processing, and the lack of transparency ensure that few birth families will participate. That should be a big red flag for adoptive families.  

One final comment: We would love for a perfect solution to come about. We spend thousands of hours searching for birth parents, maintaining contact with those that have been located, shipping and processing DNA, etc., all for free. We do not take a single dime for this work. Thus, we would LOVE it if another option presented itself, to allow us to be free from this very real burden. We do it because we want to provide answers and solace to both birth families and adoptees. And we hope that one day it will help us locate our own children's birth families. But another solution would be very, very welcome.