Monday, August 03, 2020

Searching Family Overseas: Blood Ties and Hopes

We have been working with a student inside China who grew up under the One-Child Policy. She decided to write a "search" article for an adoptee (Anna) who is searching for her birth parents in Hunan Province. Our student/reporter friend also grew up in Hunan. The intent of the article was to encourage Chinese birth families to contact us for testing and assistance in locating their relinquished children. After almost a year of research and writing, our reporter (Tian) approached several media outlets to publish the article. 

Sadly, none were willing to.

"I have talked with editors and reporters of several news media. They all said that the current censorship is very strict and the topic is very sensitive. Media units generally will not publish it publicly, because the domestic news environment is also very cautious. Huge pressure. After the journalists and editors have patiently communicated with me, I can also understand, so I think the probability of being able to publish in the news media is still relatively low."

Bottom line: If Family Planning or orphanages are involved, there will be no love from the Chinese government. 

Special thanks to Liuyu Ivy Chen, who volunteered to translate Tian's article into English for free. If Tian is able to post her article on a Chinese blog or other space down the road, we will link it here. 

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Searching Family Overseas: Blood Ties and Hopes

by Yue Tian

Now that the One-Child Policy is becoming a bygone memory, we are facing the broken lives of 150,000 abandoned Chinese children and hundreds of thousands of torn families. “Reunite family members” has become an eternal theme in their lives.

Anna, 23, has healthy sun-kissed skin. When she smiles, her brows arch and her lips spread warmly. If you run into her in the streets of South China, you’d mistake her as one of many friendly girls living in the neighborhood. But when she speaks, you’ll immediately realize that she is different.

Anna, with Asian features, was raised by an American couple. She spoke fluent English and clumsy Chinese. Now that she’d grown up, she wanted to return to her hometown to find her biological parents.

According to data released by China Center for Children’s Welfare and Adoption in 2016, since the implementation of foreign adoption, China has established partnerships with 17 countries. Nearly 150,000 Chinese infants or young children have been adopted by foreign families. More than a decade later, they’ve grown up and many have chosen to return to look for their families in China.

In the summer of 2018, accompanied by her American parents, Anna took a 20-hour flight from Louisiana to Changsha, China, and began her family-searching journey. Coming back to her homeland after 20 years, Anna was filled with curiosity and found the place both strange and familiar.

“Changsha is much more developed than I thought! Modern high-rises stand in lines; the streets are broad and clean; every restaurant I pass by waves at me.” Anna was excited and eager to take her American parents to taste Hunan gourmet at a local restaurant. The family used chopsticks skillfully and enjoyed the spicy Hunan dishes. Anna’s adoptive mother Mary said: “Anna was born in China and we felt she should understand the culture of her motherland. That’s why when she was very young, we helped her learn to use chopsticks, and together we learned about China as much as we could.”         

When the waiter brought a bowl of Hunan rice noodles to the table, as if touched by a fragile memory, Anna winced a little. “I think rice noodles might as well be the umbilical cord connecting me with my hometown,” she quipped. “When I was little and had rice noodles for the first time, I teared up. I had no idea what China and Changsha was like then. My Chinese friends told me that Hunan people love rice noodles and spicy food. It’s very interesting because my American parents have a light diet––salad and lasagna are their favorite food––but I’ve always loved spicy and hot food since I was a kid. I’m still a big fan of spicy food.”

Joy and pride filled her voice. “I have a precious Hunan tummy.”

Anna’s adoptive parents were over 60 years old. To help fulfill Anna’s wish, they insisted on traveling long distances to Changsha with her to search for her biological parents. “We respect Anna’s decision and don’t want her to live with regret. So, we’ll be with her no matter how far the road. Her family is our family,” Anna’s adoptive father David said with a smile.

The Only Trace

Anna was a little nervous when she arrived at Changsha Social Welfare Institute, standing at the turning point of her life. With a serious look, she glanced around, trying to conjure a distant memory. But she was just a one-year-old baby when she left, having no knowledge or memory of what happened.

The employees who took care of little Anna 20 years ago saw that the baby girl in a swaddle had become this healthy grown-up now standing in front of them. Overcome with complex emotions, they wept. Among them, Aunt Wang tenderly held Anna’s hands and said, choking with sobs, “In the past, I often held you, a little bundle. You didn’t cry or kick. Now we’ve grown old. I never expected to see you again. How have you been all these years?”

Before a staff member could translate Aunt Wang’s words, Anna looked at the old woman with gray hair and a hunched back, now weeping for their reunion. Anna felt deeply moved. She realized that she had come back too late. “I can’t believe anyone here remembers me.”

With enthusiasm, the staff helped Anna find her adoption file and said they’d do everything in their power to help her find her biological family.  

“Anna, female, born on April 9, 1997. Abandoned on Changsha Station Road on January 3, 1998. Sent to Changsha Social Welfare Institute by the local police. Adopted by an American couple in June of the same year.” This passage written on her adoption paperwork was the only information for Anna to trace her family.     

“The Lucky Child”

“I knew I was adopted when I was little. I’d ask my American parents why I looked different from others, and they always explained why to me kindly and patiently, helping me approach the topic of adoption with a very positive attitude. But whenever I thought of being abandoned by my Chinese parents, I couldn’t stop feeling sad. I wanted to know if I’d done anything wrong.

“I really miss my biological parents even though I don’t know anything about them. But after I learned more about Chinese history and culture, I felt they might be people with very strong hearts, but had to give me away for reasons outside of their control. Perhaps for survival? I couldn’t help but imagine all kinds of possibilities. Only the truth could give me peace of mind.”

Anna left her DNA sample at the Changsha Police Station and posted the information obtained from the welfare institute on family-search websites in China, hoping for a reply. But all the comments she received either discouraged her from searching. One comment said: “Every time I see a foreigner searching for her Chinese family, I feel speechless. What’s the point of finding someone who ditched you.” Others expressed envy towards her: “I really envy your good fortune. I also want to be taken to the United States and live a cool life.” Someone even remarked, “Now your biological parents are going to strike it rich!” 

Every comment confused Anna.

But even before this, she’d received many seemingly thoughtful pieces of advice. Except for her adoptive parents, it was very hard for others to understand why she insisted on finding her Chinese family.

“Some think I live a very happy life and should look forward rather than dwell on the past. Others often say that I’m very lucky to live in the United States and have two doting parents. I agree with them. I am very fortunate. But I believe only by understanding my past can I move forward.” Anna explained with a serious expression, but what she didn’t have the courage to say was, “Isn’t it lucky for you to never have to experience the pain of being abandoned by your biological parents?”

“I feel very conflicted because people always tell me that I’m lucky, but it’s hard for them to understand the pain and loss I’ve gone through in my life, regardless of how lucky I am.”

Childhood—Feeling Inferior 

Anna lived in an urban area of Louisiana with very few Asians.

In junior high school, she was the only Asian student in her class and bore the brunt of constant mean jokes, such as, “Anna, did your parents ditch you in the trash can or the sewer?” “Look! That’s Anna whom nobody wants!” “How shameful it is to be adopted.” This kind of mockery stabbed the girl’s heart. Anna felt very embarrassed, fighting back her tears and lowering her head without a word.

After school, she ran home with a tear-streaked face. For the first time, she confided in her adoptive mother Mary: “I don’t understand why my parents abandoned me. Whenever I think of how my own parents don’t love and want me, I feel very hurt. I always slip into the mental trap of ‘I’m a child unwanted by my own parents’, pitiful and inferior. It’s impossible to fit into my surroundings. Am I American? I have yellow skin and black hair. I’m different from all the kids around me. And I’m different from my parents. Everyone is curious about me and asks me many questions––I always have to answer those embarrassing questions. But who can answer them for me? Am I Chinese? Why am I growing up in America? Why don’t my Chinese relatives come to take me home? Where are my parents?...”

Mary held Anna in her arms and gently stroked her back with her warm palms, trying to calm her. She kept promising her, “Regardless of your past, we’ll always treat you as our own child. We’ll always love you.”

When recalling this distant memory, Anna smiled with a bitter sweetness. “When I was young, for some reason, I always had a lot of angst coming from nowhere. I later realized that the reason I bore so much anger in my heart was because I was wounded. My American parents never made me feel I was adopted; they always gave me all their love and care, protecting me in their own ways. But outside of their wings, I had to face the cruel reality on my own.”

Young Anna and Her Adoptive Mother Mary

Entering high school, Anna saw more Asian faces on campus and no longer felt so out of place and helpless. But when she hung out with her new Asian friends, she realized that the transparent barrier was still there. “Growing up in America, I didn’t understand their culture. To them, I was ‘not Asian enough’.”

Like Anna, most Asian children adopted by white families would encounter identity crisis and ethnic discrimination when growing up. Some children find it particularly hard to cope with and choose to end their lives. According to the New York Daily News, Emilie Olson, a Chinese girl adopted by American parents, fatally shot herself at age 13. Her adoptive parents said that their daughter had long been a victim of school bullying against her Asian identity.

Lan, a Chinese-American volunteer helping worldwide clients find lost family members, said that she once received a phone call from an American adoptive mother whose Chinese daughter had just been found after making her fourth suicidal attempt. As her daughter was being rescued in the hospital, she called Lan in a dejected spirit.

Professor Margaret Keyes from the University of Minnesota pointed out in her report that the suicide rate in transracial adoption families is much higher than that of same-race adoption families. For small children, the trauma of having been abandoned while having trouble fitting in their social circle can easily trigger psychological disorders. They are far from being lucky.

Accompanied on the Family Search Journey

Through the internet, Anna met many Chinese adoptees who, like her, were adopted by families in the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Japan, or Canada. The members in this group far exceeded what she’d expected. When she first joined, there had been 1,655 members; now there were 8,000 and growing. 

The abandoned babies, now grown-ups, desire to find their Chinese families, completing the missing puzzles in their lives. Lily, a Chongqing girl adopted by an American family, said: “It’s very sad not to know who my biological parents are.”

Members of oversea support groups share their life experiences and family search stories, and organize volunteer trips to aid Chinese orphanages, providing love and support for other orphans. Close friendships blossom during the journey. Anna smiled: “This is a great way get to meet friends all over the world, thanks to the families around the globe who adopted us. I always feel comfortable to meet another adoptee because we share similar experiences and feelings––we don’t have to answer any demoralizing questions concerning our origins.”

Many adoptees have started learning Chinese, studying Chinese culture, and discovering a hidden part of themselves. “Searching for family is a healing process. Hopefully one day we will calmly answer the question ‘Who am I’.” Members return to the orphanages to do research, post online inquiries, enter their DNA sample into the database, cooperate with media reports, and spread hopeful seeds every step of the way.

The Chinese children raised overseas have very remote and blurry impressions of their Chinese parents. They ache to find out why their parents abandoned them, how their parents have lived, and what they really feel. They want to know if their parents miss them as much as they do. Anna admitted: “Because we rarely see coverage on Chinese parents searching for their children, I once thought that perhaps these parents are indifferent to their lost children or have long forgotten them. That’s why I felt really uneasy before I came to China to search for my family. Then, my friend Lan told me the story of Li Guoming’s family from Jiangxi province, which gave me great courage and strength to follow through.”

Lan said: “After contacting the oversea adoptee groups, I’ve also seen many Chinese parents worrying about and missing their lost children. I hope more parents can step up to look for their children, so that more adoptees can hear stories from the Chinese parents’ perspective.”

Story of a Chinese Family Searching for Their child––“We Have Never Abandoned You or Given up Looking for You.”

When registered with the orphanage, Li Guoming’s daughter was given the name Lv Er [er: second], a random name jotted down by the village head who had carried her there. In the orphanage, the girl was called Jiang Li [li: beautiful]––Jiang was the last name of the orphanage head at the time; all the orphans were named after him. Li Guoming had named his daughter Li Mengyan [meng: dream; yan: beautiful].

Li Guoming, a shy speaker, hesitated for a long time before he explained the name, blushing up to his ears: “I named her Mengyan because I dreamed of my daughter leaving me and hoped to see her when I woke.”

Passing Down Ancestral Lineage During the Family Planning Era

Wuli village in Jiangxi province is home to a rural community with a deep-rooted patriarchal tradition––sustaining ancestral lineage through male heirs remains a sacred creed. The family planning policy implemented in the 1980’s struck the village like a thunderbolt, shattering the rigid feudal nerves. Villagers made observations and plans.

“In the village, if you don’t have a son, you’ll forever be shamed. You’ll be called ‘that extinct one’, meaning your root is cut, a terrible things to say. Everyone knows that daughters are more well-behaved than sons, but you can’t change a rural mind.” When Li Guoming’s older brother had two daughters, he threw a banquet at home to celebrate. But Li Guoming’s father, after a few drinks, ran out to cry in the mountaintop where no one was around, save for sagging graves everywhere. The old man’s wailing pierced the sky. “We were all tormented seeing the old man so sad.” Li Guoming decided to shoulder the responsibility of passing on his family’s line.

In the 1990’s, the family planning policy carried out in Jiangxi allowed a rural household to have a second baby if the first one was a daughter, but if the family already had two daughters––it was called a “two-daughter family”––the mother would be persuaded to have a sterilization procedure. In Wuli village, in order to secure a male heir, many families hid their second pregnancy like soldiers fighting a guerrilla warfare.

Having had a daughter, Li’s family decided to take the risk [of hiding the second pregnancy] to save the second and last legal opportunity for a possible son.

Li Guoming’s wife Li Fen’s stomach swelled as the grip of family planning regulation tightened. “If caught, they would not only destroy our house and burn the furniture, but also abort my baby with force and sterilize me––no hopes for more babies.” When hiding at her mother’s home, Li Fen lived in fear and anxiety every day during her pregnancy. On the due date, December 9, 1993, she endured severe pain to give birth to her second child, a translucent and beautiful baby girl.

The joy of welcoming a new life and the anxiety about an uncertain future overwhelmed the family. Li Guoming’s brother-in-law proposed an idea: “My brother-in-law’s family have always wanted a daughter, why don’t you entrust them to look after your baby girl?” The mentioned brother-in-law was the head of a neighboring village a couple hundred li away.

At the time, the officials searched every household for law breakers; a newborn’s cry would be an unmistakable loud whistle. After looking after their daughter for a week, Li Guoming and his wife decided to send the child to be cared for by the village head. At the break of dawn, the baby girl wailed. Li Fen––recuperating in bed––also cried, and Li Guoming quietly wiped his tears outside the house. The family cried in waves. Li Guoming’s brother-in-law urged: “Don’t be late or others will see it.”

The couple prepared cash, baby formula, clothes, shoes, nursing bottles and other necessary items for their daughter. According to local customs, when sending a child away, the adults should buy noodles and rice candies so that the child will remember her way back to eat home-made meals in the future––Li Fen prepared these as well. At the time, she was convinced that the separation was only temporary, and she would bring her daughter home as soon as the political whirlwind quieted.

Li Guoming carried his sleeping daughter and walked to the village head’s house with his brother-in-law. Li knocked on the door three times. The village head then opened the door and took the baby. Li and his brother-in-law turned and left. Without extra words, Li Guoming quietly suffered from the pain of separating from a loved one––described as “flesh peeling off bones” in television dramas.

In order to make a living and to dodge the family planning officials’ search, Li Guoming and his wife decided to go to Guangdong as migrant workers. While in Guangdong, they regularly called their brother-in-law to check on their daughter, and always received reassuring news.

Lifelong Regret

In 1998, the couple returned home. They bought new clothes, toys, and snacks to visit their daughter, but were told that the village head’s family had sent her to the orphanage after looking after her for just two days.

Li Fen broke into tears: “Why did they send her away after just two days? Oh, my daughter.” Li Guoming immediately ran to the orphanage to look for his daughter, but was stopped by employees.

While his wife cried from dawn to dust demanding to see her daughter, Li Guoming stood all day long outside the orphanage, inquiring whenever he saw someone walking in. Nobody said anything. He stood there until dark, and returned the next morning.

A week later, one of the staff members asked Li Guoming for his daughter’s birth date, searched for it, and told Li Guoming that she went overseas and was living a life ten thousand times better than him, advising him not to worry.

Li Guoming stood there in shock, his legs turning into jelly. He’d never thought that he’d forever lose his daughter.

The remorse of losing the child tormented the couple day and night. Whenever Li Fen thought of her, she wept. She’d thought the pain of labor had pushed her physical limit to the extreme, but the pain of losing her daughter was beyond what her body could take. Li Guoming began to suffer from insomnia, worrying that his daughter would be mistreated by her foster parents, that she would be discriminated and bullied in a foreign country, and that she would resent him… He swore that he would one day find his daughter: “Even if she doesn’t want to acknowledge us, as long as we know she is healthy and happy, we’ll feel relieved.”

Never Give up    

A small village is a small society. Every son and every abandoned child in a family is public knowledge. But in this village, the only couple that never gave up looking for their child were Li Guoming and his wife.

They went to the village and town government offices to explain the situation, wrote a letter of regret, and showed willingness to pay the fine. Li Guoming said: “To us, the fine was an astronomical amount which we couldn’t pay off right away. We both toiled as migrant workers far away from home. Every time we saved a little money, we went to the government bureaus to pay the fine, and slowly we paid it off.”

Others mocked Li Guoming for being unnecessarily honest. He answered not without embarrassment: “What if my daughter comes back to look for us? We registered our information at the government bureaus so that she can find us.”

Li Guoming also contacted the city’s newspapers and TV stations, hoping to publish a missing person notice, but was rejected every time. He was told: “Given your situation, how dare you make it public?” Li Guoming explained with grievance that he had never abandoned his child; he left her to someone else’s care only temporarily, but never thought she’d be gone. He wouldn’t rest in peace without finding his child.

He left his cell phone number and home address to the newspapers, TV stations, orphanages, government bureaus, and hospitals. He never changed his number or turned his cell phone off for 25 years, fearing he’d miss any useful information.    

The couple worked in remote towns as migrant workers for seven years before they finally paid off the fine. Li Fen’s health deteriorated. With borrowed money and a loan, the couple opened a car wash shop by the road leading to Wuli village. “Because I only have an elementary school education and know very few people, I figured I could meet more people from different backgrounds by washing their cars and filling their water. I’ve met officials, foremen, and tourists; the more people I could meet, the more chance to find my daughter.” Li Guoming printed out stacks of missing person flyers and handed them to whomever entered his shop. Some people found it bizarre and teased him: “I’ve seen parents giving their children away, but never saw any looking for them.” Some ridiculed him: “If you want a daughter, go pick one from the temple.” At the time, many unclaimed babies littered the village; walk through the temples and ancestral halls and you’d pick up seven or eight abandoned babies,” said Chen Yi, who worked at the local orphanage in the 1990’s.

Hearing these biting remarks, Li Fen would comfort her husband: “There is nothing to be ashamed of to look for our own child. No matter how awful the stuff they say, we’ll keep looking. What’s there to be afraid of when looking for our own daughter?” 

Whenever he had time, Li Guoming went to the orphanage. He didn’t bother the employees, but stood at the gate, looking if any foreigner was bringing a child back. When his financial situation improved, he bought a cart of baby clothes worth 11,116 yuan and donated them to the orphanage. It was the first time he entered the orphanage. Babies filled the hallway, some crying, some sleeping, some sucking pacifiers--the sight greatly depressed Li Guoming.

It was the first time someone donated so many things to the county orphanage. The staff enthusiastically pulled Li Guoming and his wife aside and said they could call a reporter to publicize their good deeds. Li Guoping said: “No no, I’m terrified of that. I only plead that you tell me if my daughter returns one day.”  

First Glimpse of Hope in Ten Years       

For Li Guoming, searching for his daughter was like walking in the dark––without direction or light. But he insisted on going forward, to find his daughter when he was still alive. “Home is where parents are; if we’re gone, our daughter will have nowhere to return to.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that Li Guoming’s decade-long search saw the first glimpse of hope.

A regular customer at his shop admired Li Guoming’s character and was moved by his persistence. He told Li Guoming: “I have a good relationship with the current head of the orphanage. I can help you get your daughter’s adoption profile, but I’m going to need some cash.” Li Guoming immediately understood. He withdrew a stack of cash from his savings and gave it to the customer. As long as he could find his daughter, he was willing to pay any price.

The next day, Li Guoming received his daughter’s adoption profile, which he held like a fragile treasure while happy tears filled his eyes.

With a new hope, Li Guoming searched online for updates on oversea adoptees every day. He’d type in the key words: hui guo xun qin (return to China in search of family members). “To be honest, I didn’t even graduate from elementary school, but I learned to explore the internet using my cell phone in order to find my daughter.” He felt envious and sad whenever he saw oversea adoptees returning home to look for their parents.  

He thought that as long as he paved the way, when his daughter remembers to look for him, she wouldn’t be disappointed.

Sometimes, Li Guoming left comments online to encourage oversea adoptees and send them good wishes. He reflected: “Whether it’s the adopted child looking for parents or the parents looking for their child, it’s not easy for anyone.”

In 2016, Yang Bing, a Hunan girl who returned to China to look for her parents, contacted Li Guoming. She told him: “I’ll recommend a friend to you. She can help you find your daughter.”

This friend was Lan, the Chinese-American volunteer with 18 years’ experience helping oversee adoptees to find their biological families. With her help, more than a hundred families around the world have reunited.

Blood Ties and Hopes 

Lan, who lives in the United States, followed the address on the adoption profile and found Jiang Li’s American adoptive mother’s email address. She wrote to her and collected Li Guoming’s DNA sample. While waiting for a reply, Lan felt Li Guoming’s anxious expectation. She often received messages from Li Guoming between one to three in the afternoon (one to three in the early morning in China): “Hello, is there any news about my daughter? Please help me!” Every time, Lan felt sorry to disappoint the father on the other end.

Sometimes, Lan felt Li Guoming on the fringe of a breakdown. His message read: “Greetings, Ms. Lan! Are there still no updates on my daughter? Should I give up? I feel exhausted looking for her. It’s all my fault. It’s been too painful thinking about her day and night for more than ten years. I feel guilty. I shouldn’t have given her away. Sorry, please help me. Thank you!” But he didn’t give up. He collected himself and continued looking.

Five months later, Lan received a call from Jiang Li. With great excitement, she asked: “Is everything you wrote in the email true? Have my parents been looking for me all these years? Is it true?” Lan, choked with tears, answered: “Yes, it’s all true.”

Lan had thought the story would have a happy ending. But since Jiang Li was raised by her American mother alone, to respect her adoptive mother, she decided not to contact her Chinese parents. “Thank you for telling me that my biological parents didn’t abandon me and have been looking for me. This fact is very important to me!”

From 1998 to 2018, for two decades, Li Guoming had never stopped looking for his daughter.     

At first, he felt shocked and surprised when hearing about her. Slowly, he tried to understand her decision. He said: “Parents should never blame their children. She has her concerns and we won’t disrupt her life. But whenever she wants to find us, we’ll always be here.” Upon hearing the news, Li Fen broke into sobs at home: “I want to kneel down in front of her [American mother] and kowtow to her, thanking her ten thousand times for raising my daughter. She is my life savior. But we’ve never given up on our daughter; we’ve been looking for her all these years. We understand her. As long as she is doing well, we’ll accept any conditions.”

Lan often remembers the story and feels deeply moved by the kindness and persistence of Li Guoming’s birth family. “Searching for one’s family is an arduous, long process. Hopes are slim and challenges abound. Many people give up halfway. It’s really remarkable that Li and his wife carried on for twenty years.”  

After visiting different parts of China and contacting tens of thousands of broken families, Lan learned about the many reasons that forced parents to abandon or give away their children, or find a temporary lodging place for a child as in Li’s case. “Some parents feel it’s impossible to find their child, so they don’t look. Some parents feel guilty and conflicted for having ‘abandoned’ their child in the first place, so they avoid the topic. If Anna’s birth parents think this way, Anna will never find her parents. How pitiful and sad that would be! Yet most parents don’t know how to begin the process because they live in rural China with little education or information. I hope more and more parents will contact me to help them. I’m willing to do my best to support them.”

Family Search Continues, Hopes Gleam in a Sea of Crowd

“It is the blood ties and the hopes for family reunion that have guided us to arrive here. But only when both parties––parents and children––reach out to each other can they finally hold hands.” Whether it’s oversea adoptees or Chinese parents, the journey of reunion has never been a one-way odyssey. Only when both sides step up can they hope to see each other again.   


Friday, January 31, 2020

Five Questions about the Duan Family Trafficking

The recent interest in the Hunan scandal, and the Duan family specifically, spurred by their being featured in Nanfu Wang's "One Child Nation," prompted some questions after we posted an essay on our subscription blog. The article, "Two of Duan Yue Neng's Statements in 'One Child Nation'", dealt with two assertions Mr. Duan made in the documentary: 1) That he and his family trafficked over 10,000 children; 2) That he commonly found children along the road, and that he and his family began trafficking to save the lives of these foundlings. 

We felt the answers to these important questions might be of interest to families.  

1. Did the Duans only traffic children from Wuchuan/Guangdong or did they also traffic them from other provinces and if so, do you have any sense of the approximate percentage?

In our conversation with Chen Zhi Jin, the mother of the Duan family, she indicated that about 50% of the kids came from the Wuchuan area, and 50% came from the Changning area itself. The Duans had contacts with area doctors and midwives that provided local children. Although the question addresses the source of the children obtained by the Duans, we know from DNA matches and other evidence that the children obtained by the Duans ended up in many orphanages scattered across China. 

2. Could you share the typical purchase prices from the ledgers that the Duans charged the orphanages and if they changed over time? The logs presented at trial contain various amounts of information to specific children, but some payment trajectories are visible. 

Qidong’s logs contain prices of 2800 yuan being paid for children starting in July 2004, and monies paid per child increased to 4100 yuan by November 2005. Hengdong County’s logs show a similar trajectory: 2900 paid in June 2004, increasing to 4300 in November 2005. Hengshan begins showing payment amounts in January 2005, when 3500 yuan were paid for each child, increasing to 4500 in November 2005.



3. Could you share more about the notice posted by the police in Qidong? Maybe a translation of the notice? Do I understand correctly that the police was paid off to create and sign off on police reports of baby findings and they wanted better pay for that? Is that why the Duan sister got arrested or was the notice in the newspaper and signal to the orphanages to pay more if they wanted to avoid further arrests of their sellers?




On Friday, November 18, 2005, at approximately three o’clock in the afternoon, Qidong County police surrounded two women at the Hengyang County railway station, confiscating three young female infants. Duan Mei Lin and Duan Zi Lin, two sisters from Yiyang Town in neighboring Changning City, were arrested for baby trafficking. The story of the Duan family trafficking ring became known in adoption circles and in the Western press as the “Hunan baby trafficking scandal.”

Initial press reports indicated that “orphanages in central China’s Hunan Province” had bought “at least 100 babies over the past few years,” and had resold the children to other orphanages or childless couples for 8,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan.” While the earliest report did not connect this buying by the orphanages to international adoption, later press coverage began to make the connection. Xinhua News, in an update published the following week, stated that officials involved indicated that “some of [the children] were even sold to foreign adopters.”

The trafficking scandal was quickly picked up by the Western media. Reuters reported on November 24, 2005, that “Hunan Province [police] arrested 27 people, including the head of an orphanage, in another child-trafficking crackdown the official People’s Daily said on its Web site . . ..” Chinese officials, realizing much of the Western media was simply republishing articles originating inside China, responded to the increased attention to this story by shutting down media coverage two weeks later, preventing any additional information from being published in China.

The Chinese press accounts, and as a result the derivative accounts published by Western media outlets, presented the story as an orphanage-trafficking ring being discovered and shut down by diligent Chinese police investigators. “This August, the public security bureau of Qidong County was informed that some infants were being abducted from Zhanjiang and Wuchuan in Guangdong Province to neighboring Qidong and Hengyang counties in Hunan Province,” reported Xiao Hai Bo, deputy director with the Hengyang City Police Bureau. “Qidong County police in Hunan Province, China, uncovered a situation of babies being sold. This discovery led to the exposure of a scandal involving some people in the Hunan social welfare institutes, who were buying and reselling babies.” Police revealed that “at least 100 babies, between several months and 4 years old, have been traded between the orphanages or sold to others.” The Western world was meant to believe through these accounts that Qidong police had investigated and broken up a trafficking ring that involved “about 100” children being bought and sold by a handful of orphanages and that “the government was investigating the allegations and would punish anyone found guilty of breaking the law.”

Behind the scenes, court documents detail a different story. The trial records show that, rather than the orphanages being discovered by Qidong police through anonymous tips or police investigations, the scandal was the result of a small-town power struggle over money between the orphanages and the traffickers, and the Qidong Police Bureau and the area orphanages. The Hunan scandal was revealed because of a calculated attempt by the Qidong police to get a bigger piece of adoption revenues.

By 2005, the Duan family in Hunan had established a professional and personal relationship with Liang Gui Hong, an elderly woman in Guangdong’s Wuchuan City. The relationship formed, as most relationships in China do, as a result of personal relationships between members of the two families. The Duan family had a long history of providing children to the Hengyang City orphanages. In 1996, Chen Zhi Jin, the matriarch of the Duan family, brought her first child, a two-year-old girl she had found as an infant, to the Qidong orphanage. The orphanage paid her 700 yuan. Chen was told that if she could find more children, the area orphanages, specifically the Changning orphanage, would gladly receive them. Since the Changning orphanage itself was not yet performing international adoptions, it made arrangements for these children to be internationally adopted by orphanages in Chongqing Municipality, Guangdong Province, and other areas of Hunan Province.

The orphanages began offering incentives to their employees to find and recruit children to bring into the orphanage as early as 1996. According to insiders interviewed by reporters following the scandal of 2005, orphanages initially paid 200 yuan for each baby, but that amount quickly escalated:
Towards these ends, the Hengyang County Welfare center once clarified the mission for lower levels: an employee that was responsible for the adoption of three children within that year could be said to have completed their work duties for the year and was able to receive an extension of their salary and also a bonus at the year’s end.

By the time the scandal broke in 2005, orphanages were routinely paying more than 3,500 yuan for each child procured by orphanage employees, the Duan family, and others. “Some welfare center employees even went so far as to urge the human traders to secure infants with complete disregard for any sense of morality or legality.”

The operation was not without risk. In 1998 or 1999, and again in 2002 and 2003, members of the Duan family were arrested by railway police after suspicious passengers reported the two women feeding six or more children kept in boxes under the train seats. Each time the women were released after having the orphanage directors vouch for them. Chen recounted:
I was just honest with the policemen. I told them that I was bringing all the babies to the Changning orphanage. I told them that I was just making a little money for a living, and that I got paid 10 yuan per day per baby by the orphanage to take care of those babies. My job is to take care of babies for the orphanage. Then the policeman called the Changning orphanage director and asked if my story was true. They went to Liang’s house to investigate also, to make sure that that part of my story was true. After they investigated, and they learned that I didn’t kidnap those babies, they let us go. The director of the Changning orphanage told the police that the babies we were bringing were for the orphanage. The director told the policeman that the orphanage needed those babies because there were so many babies in Liang’s house, so he sent us to get the babies. As soon as the police learned the true story, they let us go.

After the Duan’s third arrest in 2003, they were ready to quit the trafficking, but the orphanage directors, by this time accustomed to the huge profits flowing into their orphanages as a result of the adoption of the Duan foundlings, aggressively worked to keep the Duans in the game. “See, that wasn’t much trouble,” the Changning director reassured the Duans after one of their arrests. “As soon as the police found out the truth, there was no more trouble. You are fine now.” Chen recounted that
the director told me if I saved a person’s life it is worth thousands of yuan, and you know that there are people who want those babies. If you were to let those babies die, it would be a pity. Then, after the director talked to us, we decided to keep sending babies to them.

By 2005, the Hunan orphanages grew tired of paying the Duans for the children, and began working to make arrangements with the Duan’s Wuchuan contact, Liang, directly in order to remove the need to pay the Duans for what, in the eyes of the orphanages, amounted to simple transportation needs. In November 2005, unknown to the Duan family, the assistant director of the Hengyang County made a trip to Wuchuan to form a partnership with Liang. But Liang refused to cooperate with the orphanages. “You are an old customer of mine,” Liang reassured the Duans, “so I will give the babies to you. I won’t give the babies to them.”

When the assistant director returned to Hengyang empty-handed, the orphanage director, Zhang Jian Hua, was livid. “So,” according to Chen,

they called the police. The assistant director had a family member working for the government office, and they had a relationship with the Qidong Police Bureau. So, the Qidong police set up a sting, waiting for us to come back to pick up babies again. When we went back to Guangdong, we picked up three babies, and the police followed us. The babies were supposed to go to the Hengyang [County] orphanage.

On November 18, 2005, Duan Mei Lin and Duan Zi Lin were arrested as they returned from Guangdong with the three children.

Although the Hengyang City orphanages intended the Duans to simply be removed from the trafficking pipeline to Wuchuan, the Qidong Police had other ideas. After the arrest of the Duans, the police demanded that each orphanage pay 600,000 yuan in order to conduct business as usual. According to Chen,
At a closed meeting [of the Hunan Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau] the Qidong County Police Bureau request was discussed, in which they demanded that the six orphanages in Hengyang City pay the police a fee of 600,000 yuan each for a total 4.8 million [sic]. First, they arrested several trafficking people [the Duans] who were helping the orphanages collect abandoned babies. Next, they hired a reporter [Li Ling] who was unfamiliar with the actual story, to write an article reporting that the orphanages were buying babies.

Li’s article was published on November 24, 2005 in Hunan’s Sanxiang City News.

It is certain that no one from the Qidong Police Bureau expected that the small article would be picked up by other newspapers in China, including the China Daily,xx and then by media outlets outside China. But in the age of the Internet, the article was instantly picked up, and its publication grew exponentially with every passing day. As the planted story was being picked up by various newspapers and websites across China, Qidong police again asked “each of the orphanages to pay 600,000 yuan as a fee.”

With the story rapidly becoming an international scandal, Hengyang City Municipal Party Secretary Xu Ming Hua
was afraid this news would explode and arouse strong reactions. The Party Secretary told them if each of the orphanage employees paid 30,000 yuan bail, they could be released after 30 days. Assistant Deputy Director General Lei Dong Sheng of the Qidong County Police Bureau was reluctant to accept this offer since he felt he was about to get much more from the orphanages.

When the directors refused to pay the demands of the Qidong Police, the police arranged for another article to be published on December 2, 2005. While the first story did not mention that the trafficked children had been adopted internationally, this article made it specific: “Some of them were even sold to foreign adopters, said the official, adding that they are now looking into the hometowns and whereabouts of the trafficked infants.”

The articles were designed to increase the pressure on the orphanage directors and they apparently succeeded. Of the six orphanages implicated, only one director was sentenced to any jail time, Chen Ming, director of the Hengdong County orphanage, who served only three months. Chen Zhi Jin, the mother of the Duan children, and no relation to Chen Ming, offers her belief regarding this seeming discrepancy:
Let me tell you why they only charged Chen Ming. Chen Ming was sent to jail, along with my family, but the other orphanage directors, they also bought the babies and sent them for adoption. All of those orphanages belonged to the government. Those people all worked for the government; they all are supposed to follow the formalities of the government. Some of the directors said to us all those babies will be sent for outside adoption. They will have foreign parents. But those families will all have legal adoption documents, so what [the orphanages] are doing doesn’t break the law. Why Chen Ming was the only one to go to jail is because Chen Ming didn’t cooperate with the other orphanage directors; the money he paid was not enough. That is very clear. For our family, we are just common people — we had no power and no money, and no one to back us up. Actually, with the police when they caught us, it was about money too. If the police catch you, it is about money. Our family didn’t have money to pay the police, but some of the orphanages paid lots of money to them.

The Hunan scandal was intentionally limited in its scope by Hengyang City Civil Affairs officers to prevent the Beijing government from getting involved and to prevent further scrutiny of China’s international adoption program. Thus, while initial press reports implicated other orphanages in Hunan, Guangdong and Guanxi Provinces that had been purchasing babies from the six Hengyang City orphanages, because they had no direct dealing with the Duan family when the story broke, they were not prosecuted. The narrow focus of the trials prevented Zhuzhou City orphanage, for example, from being pulled into the scandal. Zhuzhou had had direct dealings with the Duan family in 2002, but the orphanage director, Zhang Hong Xia, tried, in an act that would be replayed in 2005, to impose a financial kickback system on the Duans, which they rejected. The director then called her husband, an employee of the Zhuzhou Police Bureau, to arrest the Duans as they made their way to the railway station. Chen Zhi Jin explained that episode:
[Zhang] paid us the money [for the three children], but it seems that since we didn’t pay her a “commission” — she is a very bad person — also her husband worked for the police station, so for him it was important to solve a case to show he was a successful officer — the husband tracked us down, took the orphanage money from us, and put us in jail for a month. After that happened, I would never do business with her anymore, no matter if she died or rotted away.

Despite this extralegal behavior, Zhuzhou’s director was recognized in 2009 as one of the “Hundred Excellent Orphanage Directors” of China.

In the end, the Hunan trial was an exercise in damage control by Hengyang City official Xu Ming Hua. After having the scandal break due to ill-advised publicity brought on by the newspaper articles placed by the Qidong Police, Xu simply wanted to present a show of getting something done. Xia Jing, a defense attorney involved in the Hunan trials, wrote,
The Beijing officials were not familiar with what really was happening, so they sent a document telling the Hengyang City Municipal Party Secretary to not obstruct the Qidong Police Bureau from investigating the case. The Hengyang City Municipal Party Secretary Xu Ming Hua wanted to close the case quickly, so he arranged for the traffickers to be convicted and sentenced to jail for fifteen years.

Yuan Bai Shun, defense attorney for Chen Ming, explained, “The Hunan scandal was not about the orphanage buying babies. It was more about how Chinese government officials can turn the law upside down.”

This experience shines a little light on something that is often missed by Western families. By and large, police are looked upon favorably by citizens in the U.S. and other Western countries. We feel the police largely have the best interests of the citizenry at heart. This is, in many ways, the opposite of how things are in China. In China being a police officer allows one to tap financially into the various “processes” that allow one to enrich themselves extra-legally. Whether it is spot inspections of businesses, payments for traffic violations, or fees paid by orphanages to produce finding reports, the police in China are viewed by average citizens as corrupt and self-serving, which, as the Qidong example illustrates, they often are.

To illustrate with an example that concerns all searching families: It is widely believed that putting an adoptees DNA into the national police data base, ostensibly used by “Baby Come Home” and other organizations inside China to search for lost children, is something that may bring success. Sadly, however, the birth parents, through long history and experience, avoid the police data base due to skepticism as to the police motives. Simply put, they are afraid of the police: that they will be shaken down, arrested, harassed, or otherwise abused. Additionally, birthparents understand that in many, many instances the police will work against them in their search. It is this last point that should be understood.

When a domestic family wants to adopt a child inside China, they must first go to the police if they want to register that child. To get a “hukou” for the child, the police need to be paid for this service. It represents a significant source of money for the police generally, and individual offers in particular. But, if the child is later found to have been kidnapped, the registration process represents a significant source of potential trouble for the approving officer down the road.

Thus, in practical terms, the police are anxious to tap the registration funds, but slow to assist birth families to locate lost children. We have interviewed birth families who have gone to multiple police stations to submit DNA, paid the fees, given the DNA sample, only to discover later that the police did nothing with the donated DNA. They buried it. For these reasons, the police are not seen, in China, as reliable and committed helpers in the search process. Quite simply, the police in China rarely benefit from successful reunions, and often work against allowing them to happen.  

4. As to your comment that very few children were abandoned, while I suspect you are right, I wonder how much that changed e.g. from the 80’s and early 90’s compared to later. Nanfu Wang’s uncle did indeed abandon a baby and she died, and Liang does mention that some she just “found”, although there is no elaboration on that. Xin Ran also describes outright abandonments and killings the 80s. I guess we may just never get the numbers. 


“One Child Nation” really documents two periods in the one-child policy: the period from 1979 to 1990, when the policy was brutally enforced to slow the population train and redirect the Chinese people’s thinking on the need for many children; and 1990 through 2015, when the thinking had been changed and the market for children from domestic and international families exceeded the slowing supply of over-quota children. The family planning official, midwife, and even the stories from Nanfu’s family all took place in the early period (Nanfu herself was born in 1985). How much impact the international adoption program had on the change in policies is unclear, but we know from Family Planning confiscation stories that confiscations increased after the start of international adoption.


But the abortion side of the equation seems to have also changed. While gender-reveal ultrasounds were prohibited by Chinese law, the law was frequently broken. This allowed orphanages to make connections with area doctors and midwives to coax expectant birth families of girls to not abort their child, but rather bring her to full term and relinquish her to the doctor for adoption by another family (usually a well-to-do local family, although that was usually a lie). We recently was told the following story by a birth mother from Changde, Hunan:

“When I was five months pregnant with my second child, I went to my doctor friend who worked at the city hospital. I did a B-mode ultrasound with my doctor friend’s help and found out my baby was going to be a girl. Because of the one-child policy, I told my doctor friend that I was thinking about terminating the pregnancy. My doctor friend asked me to keep the baby and told me that she knew someone who wanted the baby.

“Then, on May 1, 1996, the same day I gave birth to my baby girl at the city hospital, my baby girl was taken for an adoption arranged by my doctor friend.

“About a month later, I went to see my doctor friend in the hospital. I missed my baby girl so much, so I asked my doctor friend for information about my baby. But I was shocked when my doctor friend told me that my baby girl didn’t survive because she had all kinds of health problems.

“I was ill for several months. Over a year later, I went to see my doctor friend again in the hospital. My doctor friend finally told me that actually my daughter was in the USA. . . .

“I was shocked when I heard this news. I have been to the Changde orphanage to try to find out any information about my daughter, but the orphanage people told me to stop looking for my daughter, that I was guilty of abandoning my daughter and that I would get into trouble and punishment by the government if the government found out. They also told me to wait for 20 years and then to come back, and then I might able to find my daughter. But it has been more than 20 years, and no results about my daughter.”

There were, no doubt, many instances like this one, where a birth family would have terminated a pregnancy through abortion, but was convinced not to by a friend, doctor, or other person. Thus, the international adoption program can be seen as having saved lives. When one considers the program in its entirety, the pluses and minuses, it becomes more difficult to assess, as there are also instances where poor villages were turned into baby mills, with women getting pregnant in order to sell the child for adoption.

5. I seem to remember at the time that the Chinese authorities claimed and international adoption agencies confirmed that no children from the trafficking (or maybe only a handful?) had been adopted internationally. Do I remember correctly? The stats you share very clearly contradict this.

Yes, the stats do contradict the statements by the CCAA. Again from “Open Secret”:


With the trial concluded in February 2006 and the Duan family sentenced to fifteen years in prison, all that was left for the Chinese government to do was quell fears of the international adoption community as to the integrity of its adoption program. This need was exacerbated in March 2006 when Wash. Post published an article titled “Stealing Babies for Adoption.” The article attempted to tie the recently concluded Hunan scandal with China’s epidemic in trafficking, including kidnapping, of children for adoption. “[S]ources familiar with the investigation said many children were abducted. The court ruled that the director of the Hengdong County orphanage ‘was cognizant of the fact that he had purchased babies that had been abducted,’ according to the verdict, which was read to the Washington Post.” The article created panic in the Chinese adoption community for two reasons: it increased the number of children involved in the Hunan scandal to “as many as 1,000 babies,” and it led adoptive families to wonder if their children had been kidnapped in order to be adopted.

The Chinese government responded to the Wash. Post article by issuing a tightly worded pronouncement to each government involved in their international adoption program: “The CCAA [China Center for Adoption Affairs] informed us that it had concluded its investigation into all of the children from Hengyang adopted by Americans and found that all of these children were legitimately orphaned or abandoned and that there are no biological parents searching for them.”

A similarly worded statement replacing the country of destination was issued to each government participating in China’s international adoption program.

As indicated by an unnamed U.S. State Department official, “The Chinese government has told Washington that an investigation found no children involved in a recent baby-trafficking case were adopted by American families.” Maura Harty, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, echoed that finding in a letter to The Washington Post:

The State Department has sought to determine whether any Chinese child adopted by U.S. parents had been bought or sold. We have not confirmed any such case to date. Meanwhile, the CCAA says it has concluded its investigation into the origins of children from Hengyang adopted by Americans and found that all were legitimately orphaned or abandoned and that no biological parents were searching for them.

Beijing had given it to Harty, and adoptive parents generally, to understand that no children trafficked by the Duan family had been internationally adopted. But court documents presented in the Hunan trials show such a conclusion was unwarranted. Chen Ming, Hengdong orphanage director, indicated that

there were 85 babies involved in our case. Our orphanage [Hengdong] had bought eighteen of those babies. There were five other orphanages that bought the other sixty-seven babies: Hengnan County orphanage bought 22 babies; Hengyang County orphanage bought 11 babies; Changning orphanage bought 7 babies; Qidong county orphanage bought 15 babies; and Hengshan County orphanage bought 12 babies.

Court-submitted orphanage records, however, provide a much more detailed accounting of how many children were brought to the six orphanages and undermine the conventional understanding of the Chinese government’s above statement. Court documents show that the Changning orphanage, for example, purchased 274 children from the Duan family between December 2001 and November 2005. Nearly all of those children were adopted internationally and represented 90% of all international adoptions from the orphanage in those years. Chen Ming’s orphanage, Hengdong County, purchased 356 children from the Duans between May 2002 and November 2005, with almost all of those children being internationally adopted. These children represented 92% of all of Hengdong County’s adoptions in that period.

A similar situation is seen in the other two orphanages for which detailed logs are available. Hengshan County, prosecuted for having officially purchased twelve children, had in fact purchased 132 children between January and November 2005 alone, representing 85% of all children submitted for international adoption by the orphanage in that period. The Qidong County orphanage, officially charged with purchasing fifteen children from the Duans, in reality purchased 122 children in the period between August and November 2005. These children represented more than 90% of all adoptions from the Qidong orphanage in that period.

The Changning orphanage trafficking logs from 2002 through 2004 also detail into which country each child was adopted. Between January 2002 and October 2004, 191 children were brought into the Changning orphanage by the Duans. Orphanage logs show that these trafficked children were adopted to the following countries:

Canada – 32
Ireland – 6
Netherlands – 9
Norway – 4
Spain – 25
Sweden – 4
United States – 111

It is unknown whether the Chinese government intentionally sought to mislead the United States and other national governments about the origin of the children sent abroad by the six Hunan orphanages. Taken at face value, the statement by Chinese officials simply indicates that none of the children had been kidnapped (an assertion reported in Goodman’s Wash. Post article). It did not say that none of the children had been trafficked.